The FBI and Department of Justice have been at the center of two of the most consequential political investigations into Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. New developments have reopened questions about the objectivity of those institutions and whether their investigations were tainted with political bias.
On Friday, it was revealed that Robert Mueller removed a senior counterintelligence investigator from his team after it was discovered that the agent exchanged anti-Trump messages with his mistress, a top FBI lawyer who was also a member of Mueller's investigative team. The agent, Peter Strzok, previously worked on the investigation of Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server before he joined Mueller to investigate possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian government.
The agent's text messages were reportedly discovered last summer, as the Justice Departments Office of the Inspector General was conducting its review of the FBI's handling of the Clinton email probe. According to a spokesman for the special counsel, Strzok was removed from the investigation "immediately upon learning of the allegations."
The fact that an investigator involved in two of the most politically sensitive public corruption cases voiced his political views came as a shock to former FBI agents, who said his actions reflect a lack of integrity and judgment. But the revelation about Strzok's anti-Trump messages has also lent some credibility to the president's repeated complaints that the FBI and Department of Justice are leading a "witch hunt" against him, while protecting his former rival, Hillary Clinton.
Over the weekend, the president seized on the possible proof of political bias in the Clinton investigation and in the ongoing investigation into Trump's campaign. The latter investigation has already resulted in criminal charges against four former Trump campaign associates, including former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
In a series of tweets, Trump suggested that the Strzok dismissal proved the FBI has a political ax to grind. The president referred to the investigator as "Tainted" and noted, "'ANTI-TRUMP FBI AGENT LED CLINTON EMAIL PROBE' Now it all starts to make sense!"
Trump further raised the issue of FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe's ties to Clinton. McCabe, who oversaw the Clinton investigation and served as interim FBI director after the president fired James Comey, is currently the subject of three internal reviews looking into whether he should have recused himself from the Clinton investigation after his wife, Jill McCabe, received $700,000 in campaign contributions from Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, a key Clinton ally.
Since former FBI Director Comey decided against recommending charges against Hillary Clinton for mishandling classified government information, Trump and his allies have been trying to expose what they see as a political agenda at the Department of Justice. Some have argued that the president is trying to discredit the agency now investigating his campaign, but former FBI agents see a broader problem of politicization among the leadership of the DOJ and FBI.
Retired FBI agent Bobby Chacon noted that "there is some merit" to the president's claims of an anti-Trump sentiment within the Department of Justice, evidenced by Strzok's reassignment from the Mueller probe. When the president claims the Department of Justice is involved in a witch hunt against him, "texts like this give credence to that kind of thing," he added.
Some have suggested that this development could hurt the credibility of the Mueller investigation, which many of Trump's allies have already called into question.
Chacon warned that the issue "is going to be fodder for any defense attorney" representing an individual charged as a result of the investigation. "If they can bring up the issue of lack of objectivity in some of the senior investigators and in some of the senior prosecutors on that team, then it's going to compromise any successful prosecution."
More generally, however, Chacon and others have raised concerns about the overt politicization of the FBI, which began in earnest under James Comey and reportedly continues to this day.
"In my 27 years as an FBI agent, I never saw politics infect the upper echelons of the bureau as it has in the last year to 18 months," Chacon said. His former colleagues who are still at the bureau have reported instances of the executive-level leadership, including McCabe and some officials close to him, "making political statements in meetings and demonstrating a political bias."
According to veteran FBI agent Jeffrey Danik, the politicization of the FBI isn't new, but it has become increasingly visible in the wake of the Clinton investigation and James Comey'sdecision to leak transcripts of his discussions with President Trump, a move that impacted the Trump-Russia investigation.
"The FBI is systemically politically corrupt in its executive level," Danik stated. "The problem is once these investigations burble up to control in Washington, the propensity to have political motivations ratchets way, way up."
Danik argued that the responsibility for the current, heightened politicization of the FBI falls squarely at the feet of James Comey and Andrew McCabe.
The state of affairs in the bureau's leadership has led some to call on Christopher Wray, the new FBI director, to clean house, a measure President Trump appears to support.
Over the weekend, Trump hinted at his desire to see big changes at the FBI. "After years of Comey," Trump tweeted, the FBI's reputation "is in Tatters - worst in History! But fear not, we will bring it back to greatness."
Trump also retweeted a comment from journalist Paul Sperry saying, "Wray needs to clean house. Now we know the politicization even worse than McCabe's ties to McAuliffe/Clinton. It also infected his top investigator PETER STRZOK, who sent texts bashing Trump & praising Hillary during campaign. Strzok led Hillary probe & supervised Trump probe!"
Danik agreed that the bureau is overdue for a housecleaning, adding there is evidence that the upper levels of the agency "need a serious purging." However, he remains concerned about the damage that has already been done to the organization, particularly by James Comey's decision to leak the transcripts of his conversations with President Trump to the press and admit to it without facing any consequences.
"That case caused severe, unbelievable damage to the FBI," Danik said. "That is why the FBI, their reputation, is in tatters."
Others disagreed with Trump's characterization of the agency. President Obama's former attorney general, Eric Holder, hit back against Trump on Twitter saying, "The FBI's reputation is not in 'tatters' ... You'll find integrity and honesty at FBI headquarters and not at 1600 Penn Ave right now."
The President of the FBI Agents Association, Thomas O’Connor, also took issue with the president's broad characterization of the agency and defended the integrity of the agents working in the field. "Each and every day, FBI Special Agents put their lives on the line to protect the American public from national security and criminal threats," O'Connor said. "FBI Agents are dedicated to their mission; suggesting otherwise is simply false."
Chacon said he understood Trump's frustration with some of the leadership of the FBI, but it shouldn't tarnish the entire organization.
"99.9 percent of the FBI agents in the field don't have anything to do with the [Mueller] investigation, have not been shown anti-Trump bias, and are out there working their cases," he stressed. "Their reputation is intact and it's not going to rise or fall on a few senior executives up at headquarters who have reached a political point in their careers."
In the coming weeks, the pressure will increase on the FBI and Justice Department's senior leadership to produce answers on their handling of the Clinton and Trump probes. Christopher Wray is likely to face questions on the politicization of the FBI in the Clinton and Trump investigations when he testifies before lawmakers Congress later this week.
It is still not clear how severe the anti-Trump sentiment was among at least two members of Mueller's investigative team. Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee issued subpoenas and have been trying for months to get access to the texts of the Strzok's messages, but they have been stonewalled. As a result, House Intelligence chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) instructed his staff to draft contempt of Congress citations this past weekend, demanding the FBI and DOJ produce information on the circumstances of Strzok's demotion and his exchange with Lisa Page.
According to the Justice Department, McCabe and Strzok have been cleared to testify before the committee.