The U.S. Senate voted 94-6 on Tuesday to confirm Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein to be deputy U.S. attorney general.
President Donald Trump has not yet announced a nominee to succeed Rosenstein as U.S. attorney for Maryland.
Rosenstein’s first major decision as the No. 2 person at the Justice Department will likely be whether to name a special counsel to investigate if Russia interfered and perhaps colluded with Trump’s campaign during last November’s presidential election or whether to oversee the inquiry himself. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from the investigation, having met with a Russian ambassador when he was a U.S. senator campaigning for Trump.
Rosenstein, whom Trump nominated for the deputy post, has not said which way he is leaning, calling it “a matter of principle” that he not bind himself to a pre-confirmation promise, particularly when he has not definitively heard on a pending investigation, has not reviewed any evidence nor spoken with the Justice Department’s experts on the ethical rules.
Rosenstein, 52, served as Maryland’s presidentially appointed U.S. attorney since 2005 and has spent 25 years working in the Department of Justice. Senators of both parties – including Maryland’s two Democratic senators, Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen — have praised Rosenstein’s integrity, fairness and apparent disregard for political consequences.
Cardin has called Rosenstein “the right person at the right time.”
Van Hollen has said Rosenstein’s “job will be to serve justice and not political leaders.”
“He has a well-known reputation for independence,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, R- Iowa, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said on the Senate floor before the vote. “From all I see and know about him, I believe Mr. Rosenstein will keep his promise for integrity and independence.”
While most Democrats voted for Rosenstein, Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut opposed the nominee because he didn’t commit during the confirmation process to appoint a special counsel. Blumenthal told reporters on Tuesday that the need to do so is all the more apparent after new revelations that Trump’s former National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, may have violated U.S. law by failing to disclose his business dealings with Russia and Turkey.
Rosenstein will be guided by a 1999 federal regulation in deciding whether to turn over the politically sensitive inquiry to a special counsel.
According to the regulation, a special counsel should be appointed when it’s determined that an investigation or prosecution by a U.S. attorney’s office or division of the Justice Department “would present a conflict of interest for the Department or other extraordinary circumstances” and that “under the circumstances, it would be in the public interest to appoint an outside Special Counsel to assume responsibility for the matter.”
A person named as special counsel “shall be a lawyer with a reputation for integrity and impartial decisionmaking, and with appropriate experience to ensure both that the investigation will be conducted ably, expeditiously and thoroughly, and that investigative and prosecutorial decisions will be supported by an informed understanding of the criminal law and Department of Justice policies,” the regulation states. “The Special Counsel shall be selected from outside the United States Government.”
Top Democrats, including Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer of New York and Richard Durbin of Illinois, voted to confirm Rosenstein even though they, too, want a special counsel.
If he doesn’t appoint a special counsel, Durbin said, responsibility will fall squarely on Rosenstein.
“I hope he’ll be willing to speak truth to power and stand up to the president and the attorney general as necessary,” Durbin said.
Rosenstein will pick up oversight of the Russia probe from Dana Boente, a U.S. prosecutor in Virginia who has been filling in as acting deputy attorney general.
Bloomberg contributed to this story.