Thorny issues await Justice Department nominees

President Trump's wiretapping accusations are being raised at hearings.

— -- The controversies over President Trump's accusation that President Obama wiretapped him before the election and Attorney General Jeff Sessions' recusal from campaign-related investigations hung over the confirmation hearing for the top two officials who will serve under Sessions in the Department of Justice.

Rod Rosenstein, Trump's nominee for deputy attorney general, largely steered clear of answering direct questions from Democrats about whether he would commit to appointing a special prosecutor, citing a need to first know the facts of the case. He committed to consulting career professionals but was careful to point out that he was not confirming the existence of any investigation into the matter. Rosenstein is a career prosecutor who has served as U.S. attorney for Maryland under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama.

Asked repeatedly about President Trump's accusation, Rosenstein responded, "We are talking about some tweets, I don't know about any investigation."

Referring to the president's tweets, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., asked Rosenstein about the responsibility of the Justice Department to address factual statements made by the president which later were found to be false. Rosenstein declined to answer the hypothetical but said that in such a case, he would to talk to the FBI director and make an independent determination about what to do.

The hearing included a testy exchange between Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, over whether Attorney General Sessions should return to the committee to explain his answer to Franken's questions about contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. During his confirmation hearing, then-Senator Sessions said, "Senator Franken, I'm not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn't have — did not have communications with the Russians, and I'm unable to comment on it."

Last week Sessions admitted he had two meetings with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, one last summer during the GOP convention in Cleveland and a second time in September in his Senate office.

Franken and other Democratic members of the committee insisted that Sessions should reappear before the committee to address the matter.

"He should come back and explain himself Mr. Chairman. I think he owes that to us," Franken said.

Grassley said he considered Franken's question during the confirmation hearing to be a "gotcha" question.

"It was not a gotcha question, sir," Franken said as the chairman's gavel came down. "Look at the tape, Mr. chairman," he added.

Though Republicans defended Sessions' handling of the matter and his recusal, the issue if far from over and will surely be the subject of questions from Democrats during oversight hearings in the future.

Associate attorney general nominee Rachel Brand also appeared before the committee. If confirmed, she will oversee the civil side of the Justice Department, including civil rights and environmental enforcement. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., raised Brand's prior work for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which he called a "relentless enemy of climate action and has trafficked regularly in climate denial."

Whitehouse asked Brand repeatedly if there is a public interest in addressing climate change. Without addressing climate change, Brand answered, "My job is to enforce the law, whatever it is."