Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee pressed Rod J. Rosenstein, President Donald Trump's nominee for deputy attorney general, almost exclusively on the Russia investigation and whether Sessions told the truth in his own confirmation hearing when he said he had not met with any Russian officials.
In one very terse exchange, Sen. Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, said he was doing everything he could to not accuse Sessions of lying in his testimony before the committee. Franken had asked Sessions during his confirmation hearings
how he would handle any potential contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials and Sessions responded, "I did not have communications with the Russians."
Sessions did not say that he met twice with the Russian ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, which angered Democrats last week. But Sessions poured fuel on the fire Monday afternoon when he submitted a follow-up letter arguing that he had answered Franken's question truthfully.
"I think Sen. Sessions should come back. I think he owes it to this committee to come back. And he should explain himself," Franken said Tuesday. At the end of his comments, in which Franken dubbed Sessions' response "insulting," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley accused Franken of stepping over the line.
Over the course of close to three hours Tuesday, Democrats pressed Rosenstein on whether he would recuse himself from any Russia investigations or appoint a special prosecutor.
Tuesday's hearing drew more attention because of the swirl of questions about Russia's contacts with the Trump campaign and Trump's own allegation that former President Barack Obama had the "wires tapped" at Trump Tower.
Sen. Lindsey Graham asked Rosenstein if he knew why Trump was accusing the former president of monitoring his phones during the campaign -- a claim for which the White House has not publicly presented any evidence -- but Rosenstein said he was unaware of any facts on the issue. Obama, though a spokesman, has denied doing so, as has his former director of national intelligence, James Clapper.
"If the President is exercising his First Amendment rights, that's not my issue," Rosenstein said.
Sessions' recent decision to recuse himself from any potential investigations related to the Trump campaign or transition has done little to stop Democrats from calling for a special counsel.
Grassley, a Republican, opened the confirmation hearing for Rosenstein by saying, "Any talk of a special counsel is premature at best."
"I can't help but notice the selective calls for a special counsel," Grassley then said, noting that then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch oversaw Hillary Clinton's email investigation and met with former President Bill Clinton at a Phoenix airport last year, though she said at the time she'd accept the findings of the FBI. "Where were the calls from the Democratic leadership for a special counsel?"
If confirmed as Sessions' deputy, Rosenstein would oversee any potential investigations or prosecutions into Trump surrogates and Russians -- including the key decision on whether to appoint a special prosecutor -- now that Sessions has recused himself.
Rosenstein assured Grassley that he has not had any contact with Russian officials that he knows of and would have to review the facts of any Russia investigation before deciding whether to recuse himself.
"As far as I'm concerned, every investigation by the DOJ is an independent investigation," Rosenstein said.
Democrats on the panel are using the hearing as a referendum on the conduct of Trump, whether Sessions lied under oath and how best to proceed with an investigation into Russia's alleged interference in the presidential election.
"I continue to strongly believe the case can be made for an independent special investigation," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, said in her opening statement, adding that although the nominee may be revered and well-liked, there are deeper problems with Russia and Sessions' involvement.
Rosenstein, a career prosecutor, currently serves as the US attorney for the District of Maryland. He won unanimous Senate confirmation to his current post in 2005 under President George W. Bush and stayed on as the top federal prosecutor in Baltimore under the Obama administration.
Rosenstein won broad bipartisan backing for his nomination to the Justice Department. His homestate senators, both Democrats, said they were supporting his nomination. (One of them, Sen. Ben Cardin, even called Rosenstein a "welcome nomination" from Trump.)
The committee will also hear from Trump's nominee for associate attorney general, Rachel Brand, who, if confirmed, will oversee the Civil Division, which defends the administration in the hotly contested lawsuits over the travel ban
This story is updating while news is in progress.