Democrats appeal to Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein to appoint special prosecutor

Rod Rosenstein
Rod Rosenstein testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill. (Photo: Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — Just an hour after President Donald Trump announced his decision to abruptly fire FBI Director James Comey, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer publicly called upon the Justice Department’s second in command to appoint a special prosecutor to take over the inquiry into Russia’s interference in the U.S. elections.

Comey testified earlier this year that the FBI was investigating potential links between the Russian government and members of the Trump campaign as part of a broader counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from that inquiry owing to his role on Trump’s campaign and his own contacts with the Russian ambassador. Any decision to appoint a special prosecutor will rest with his deputy, Rod Rosenstein.

“It is troubling that Attorney General Sessions, who recused himself from the Russia investigation, played a role in firing the man leading it,” Schumer told reporters. “Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein sat in the judiciary committee and promised to appoint a special prosecutor at the appropriate time. That time is right now. The American people’s trust in the criminal justice system is in Mr. Rosenstein’s hands.”

Schumer appealed to the former U.S. attorney directly: “Mr. Rosenstein, America depends on you to restore faith in our criminal justice system, which is going to be badly shattered after the administration’s actions today,” he said.

Democratic senators asked Rosenstein repeatedly to commit to appointing a special prosecutor on Russia during his confirmation hearing in March. He refused, saying he considered it a matter of “principle” not to commit to handling specific cases a certain way.

“Senator, I believe you and I are on the same side,” Rosenstein said at one point. “If the Russians interfered with the American elections, I’m on the Americans’ side.”

Trump cited both Rosenstein and Sessions in his brief letter firing Comey, in which the president also stressed that Comey told him he’s not under FBI investigation. The White House later released a memo drafted by Rosenstein that argued Comey overstepped his authority last year in his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server. Comey first held a press conference explaining his decision to close the investigation, and later sent a letter to Congress flagging potential new information in the case. As “supplementary information,” the White House also released summaries of news articles of Democrats criticizing Comey in the past.

Schumer also questioned why Trump fired Comey now, and not months ago, if his problem with the director had to do with how he handled Clinton’s investigation. “We know the FBI has been looking into whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians, a very serious offense,” Schumer said. “Were these investigations getting too close to home for the president?”

Congressional Democrats are up in arms over the firing, with Sen. Bob Casey, D-Penn., calling it “Nixonian” and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., saying it’s “shocking.” Democrats have also renewed their calls for a special prosecutor to investigate possible criminal ties between Russia and the Trump campaign and for creating a special independent commission, like the one formed after the 9/11 attacks, to investigate. Currently, both the Senate and House Intelligence Committees are looking into Russian interference in the elections, and both have been criticized for their slow pace.

Response from Republicans to Comey’s firing, in contrast, has been muted. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., occasionally a critic of the Trump administration, praised Comey’s firing as a way for the FBI to have a “new start.” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said he believed the firing was justified but the timing of it would raise questions. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she had “every confidence” that the FBI would continue its investigation under a new leader who would have “better judgment on when it is appropriate to comment publicly on the results of an investigation.”

However, Sen. Richard Burr, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he was “troubled by the timing and the reasoning” of Comey’s firing.

Sen. John McCain had the most critical response, saying he was “disappointed” in the decision and called for the formation of a special congressional committee to investigate.

“The president’s decision to remove the FBI Director only confirms the need and the urgency of such a committee,” McCain said.

For his part, Trump lashed out at the Democratic leader in a Tuesday night tweet, calling him “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer.” This was reminiscent of an earlier Trump Twitter jab that mocked Schumer for tearing up during a speech against the White House’s travel ban.

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