UPDATE: Rosenstein met with Senate Intelligence Committee leaders, and declined to recuse himself.
Top Senate Democrats are turning up the heat on a high-ranking political appointee at the center of the James Comey firestorm.
Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Judiciary Committee ranking member Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) lashed out at Rod Rosenstein on Thursday morning.
The pair called on the Deputy Attorney General to recuse himself from the investigation into both alleged Russian meddling in last year’s election and any involvement by members of the Trump campaign.
Rosenstein should not only step back from the investigation, according to the two Senators, but he should also have no involvement in the appointment of a special counsel, who should be leading the probe.
The Deputy Attorney general had penned a memo cited by the White House on Tuesday, when the President fired now-former FBI Director James Comey.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions was also involved in Comey’s termination, despite having recused himself from the investigation into alleged Russian election interference. The probe, which is still open, was referenced by President Trump, when he informed Comey that the now-former Bureau head was terminated.
“This issue should be handled by the most senior career attorney at the Justice Department,” Feinstein said in a statement.
Schumer applauded Feinstein from the Senate floor, shortly after her statement was released.
“Mr. Rosenstein and other political appointees should not be the one who decide on a special prosecutor,” he also said.
The Democratic leader additionally called on Rosenstein to testify before Congress, and said he will send the Justice Department second-in-command a list of questions to answer publicly.
Rosenstein, however, refused to step back from the investigation Thursday afternoon, during a meeting with Senate Intelligence Committee leaders. Ranking member Mark Warner (D-Va.) said that he told the Deputy Attorney General to recuse himself, and that Rosenstein “took it under advisement.”
The meeting had evidently been scheduled before the Comey firing. It was held so the Justice Department and the intelligence committee could avoid scheduling conflicts, when deposing witnesses being called to testify as part of the Russia investigation.
Intel Committee Chair Richard Burr (R-N.C.) stressed that the trio did not discuss the firing of Comey, because it “wasn’t the purpose of [Rosenstein’s] visit with us.”
Democratic leaders on the Senate Appropriations Committee are also pressing Rosenstein on press reports alleging that Comey had asked for additional resources for the Russia investigation, shortly before he was sacked.
Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) asked Rosenstein for details “about how this request was communicated from the FBI to DOJ, and whether similar requests were made to the White House.”
Some Republican senators, including Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) have criticized Trump’s decision to suddenly fire Comey. Feinstein’s counterpart on the Judiciary Committee, however, is not one of them.
On Thursday morning, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) lashed out Comey for having refused to openly state whether the President himself is under investigation.
“Wild speculation that the FBI is targeting the President in a criminal or intelligence inquiry is not just irresponsible and unfounded,” Grassley said. “It provides aid and comfort to the Russians and their goal of undermining faith in our democracy.”
The senior Republican also called on Democrats to calm down.
“What I suggest is that before this Committee does anything more on this matter, that all the Members get briefed by the FBI on what is actually going on,” he said. “Hopefully, that will help temper some of the unsubstantiated statements that have been made.”
Whether or not Trump is the target of an investigation, federal obstruction of justice is a felony offense.
Despite the existence and release of Rosenstein’s memo, there are doubts surrounding the extent to which he was involved in Comey’s dismissal. According to The Washington Post, Rosenstein has already “threatened to resign” because the White House “cast him as a prime mover of the decision to fire Comey.”