Ex-colleagues of Deputy Attorney General See Need for Special Counsel in Russia Probe

Former colleagues of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said Wednesday that he should recuse himself from an investigation into Russian meddling in U.S. elections.

Rosenstein should instead appoint a special prosecutor for the probe, in the wake of President Donald Trump’s abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey on Tuesday, they said.

“Can he do an impartial job of the investigation? Perhaps. But the credibility is now lost and I don’t think the Department of Justice can conduct this investigation without hiring outside counsel,” said Doug Gansler, a former Maryland attorney general who supported Rosenstein’s selection for the No. 2 post at the department.

Rory Little, a former associate deputy attorney general who has known Rosenstein since the 1990s and also backed his nomination, said it was “entirely likely” Rosenstein would appoint a special prosecutor.

“If he appoints, he takes the heat off of himself and off of the Department of Justice,” Little said.

Rosenstein, who started on the job just two weeks ago, wrote a memo harshly critical of Comey that Trump and aides cited as justification for dismissing the FBI director.

Critics sound off

The move ignited a political furor, with Democrats and other Trump critics suggesting that it was designed to impede the FBI’s investigation of Russian actions related to the elections and questions about whether Trump’s campaign colluded with the Russians. Trump has derided the latter notion as “fake news.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has already recused himself from involvement in the Russia probe after failing to disclose, during his Senate confirmation hearing, meetings with Sergei Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to Washington.

Rosenstein has the authority to name a special prosecutor if he chooses. During his own confirmation hearing in March, Rosenstein said would be willing to do so “whenever I determine it is appropriate.”

The White House opposes the idea. But Little said, “I know Rod Rosenstein well enough to know that if he thinks it’s the right thing to do and the president says, ‘If you do that, I’ll fire you,’ he’ll resign.”

Little and others have praised Rosenstein, 52, a career prosecutor, for his impartiality and independence. But his memo faulting Comey’s oversight of the FBI investigation into Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s emails has raised new questions about partisanship.

In the three-page memo, Rosenstein said Comey was wrong to “usurp” the attorney general’s authority when he announced last July that Clinton would not face criminal charges over her use of a private email server, and when he later held a press conference about his findings.

Trump cites memo

While Rosenstein stopped short of urging Comey’s dismissal, Trump said in a statement Tuesday that he dismissed Comey “on the clear recommendations” of both Rosenstein and Sessions.

That renewed calls by congressional Democrats for Rosenstein to appoint a special counsel.

“If there was ever a time when circumstances warranted a special prosecutor, it is right now,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York said.

Congressional Republicans opposed the suggestion.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, White House deputy press secretary, said Wednesday that Rosenstein had raised concerns about Comey on Monday, leading Trump to ask for Rosenstein’s recommendation in writing.

Little said that while he did not think the memo compromised Rosenstein’s ability to conduct an independent investigation, it made political sense for him to recuse.

“I don’t know if Rosenstein will appoint a special counsel or not, but if he does, it’s actually a healthy move for the Department of Justice, because it takes the focus off the Department of Justice and puts it on the special counsel,” Little said.

John Hudak of the Brookings Institute, a policy research group in Washington, said any indication that Rosenstein wrote the memo to furnish Trump with a reason to fire Comey called into question Rosenstein’s impartiality.

“But ultimately, the firing of Comey is a scandal, Rod Rosenstein is complicit in that, and it’s hard to imagine a scenario [in which] Rod Rosenstein is trusted by the leadership of the FBI, by the rank-and-file of the FBI, or by the U.S. Senate, who confirmed him,” Hudak said.

A Department of Justice spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Timing of dismissal

The allegations about Comey’s handling of the Clinton email server investigation were long known, raising questions about the timing of the FBI director’s dismissal. While Trump questioned Comey’s July announcement not to bring charges against Clinton, he later praised the former FBI director for briefly reopening his investigation just days before the November 8 election.

“The president of the United States could have dismissed Director Comey on January 20 as part of a normal transition,” Hudak said. “Instead, he waited until the [FBI] investigation into his campaign heated up.”

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