Republicans have seized upon text messages sent by two FBI employees who worked on special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election as evidence of an inexcusable bias in the probe, but former FBI agents disagree on whether insulting anti-Trump texts invalidate the team’s work.
Nearly 400 messages exchanged by FBI agent Peter Strzok and FBI attorney Lisa Page were released Tuesday. In them, the two call then-candidate Donald Trump an “idiot” and a “loathsome human,” expressing dread that he might defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton. Strzok also played a significant role in the investigation of Clinton’s email server, an assignment that sparked additional suspicion from the GOP.
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The texts came to light during an investigation by the Justice Department Inspector General’s Office of various issues pertaining to FBI activity during the campaign. Mueller removed Strzok from the Russia probe immediately upon learning of them in July. Lake had already completed her work with the special counsel at that point.
While grumblings about the alleged biases of the team conducting the investigation have been ongoing from the start, proof that two staffers who worked on the case had engaged in virulently anti-Trump discussions has further inflamed tensions.
Republicans have also taken issue with political donations made to Democrats by several attorneys on Mueller’s team, work done for the Clinton Foundation by one attorney, and praise for former acting Attorney General Sally Yates for defying Trump by another.
Trump attorney Jay Sekulow argued a second special counsel should investigate those issues, as well as Justice Department official Bruce Ohr, who has ties to a firm that compiled a dossier of unverified intelligence on the Trump campaign’s links to Russia for Clinton and the Democratic National Committee. Republicans have alleged that dossier was inappropriately used to seek warrants and justify the investigation.
"We believe it has reached that level of criminality, at least allegations as to criminality and impropriety, that it needs to be investigated immediately," Sekulow said.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein attempted to draw a distinction between benign personal opinions and malicious bias at a House Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday.
“We recognize we have employees with political opinions,” Rosenstein said. “It’s our responsibility to make sure those opinions do not influence their actions. I believe that Director Mueller understands that, and he is running his office appropriately.”
That response did not satisfy some Republicans.
“This is unbelievable,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. “This is what a lot of Americans are believing right now, and I certainly do: That the Comey FBI and the Obama Justice Department worked with one campaign to go after the other campaign.”
“This is not just political opinions. This is disgusting, unaccountable political bias, and there’s just no way this could not affect a person’s work,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas.
While deferring to the inspector general’s office on the specifics of the investigation, Rosenstein acknowledged that the text messages “raise concern.” He maintained that he has seen no cause to fire Mueller and no sign of impropriety in the special counsel’s office.
While House Judiciary Committee members reserved most of their fire for Mueller and his team, other supporters of the president have gone further, demanding purges and arrests at the FBI.
"I think the FBI's been compromised,” said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, on Fox News Wednesday. “Forget about shutting down Mr. Mueller. Do we need to shut down the FBI because it was turned into a KGB-type operation by the Obama administration?"
Democrats have come to Mueller’s defense, noting among other things that federal regulations prohibit the DOJ and the special counsel’s office from considering the political affiliation or contributions of career employees in hiring decisions.
Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, observed that the president and top administration officials have also made donations to Democrats in the past. FBI Director Christopher Wray, a registered Republican, has made donations to GOP presidential candidates and other campaigns totaling more than $50,000, nearly as much as the $62,000 total that 15 attorneys on Mueller’s team have given to Democrats.
“[Trump] certainly has given a lot of money to Democrats, so that’s something that happens on the Hill,” Beatty said. “I am standing with Mueller.”
Some Republicans have taken a more moderate stance, arguing that legitimate questions have been asked about certain agents but nothing that impugns the FBI as a whole.
Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., said the texts represent “a complete lack of professionalism” and Strzok should have voluntarily recused himself if he felt this way, but they do not reflect the corruption of the entire bureau.
“Do I trust the FBI?” Mullin said. “Absolutely. I have a lot of friends who work for the FBI. They are wonderful, great people. You can’t judge the whole department based on certain peoples’ bias.”
Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, a former undercover CIA agent and a member of the House Intelligence Committee, also defended the integrity of the FBI itself while adding that inquiries about specific agents and actions are well within the purview of congressional committees.
“The bulk of the men and women in the FBI are hard-working, god-fearing, great Americans that are trying to keep our homeland safe,” he said. “But doing a review of activities and how information is used is something the various oversight committees should be engaged in.”
Trump was far from the only target of Strzok and Page’s scorn. Over the course of the 17 months covered by the texts, they criticized Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, Eric Holder, Jeff Sessions, and at times Clinton’s campaign. Their views of Trump’s intelligence and fitness for office, though jarringly blunt, were not outside the mainstream.
Republicans have zeroed in on one particular exchange, in which Strzok cryptically refers to doing something if Trump is elected.
"I want to believe the path you threw out for consideration in Andy’s office — that there’s no way he gets elected — but I’m afraid we can’t take that risk. It’s like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you’re 40,” he wrote in August 2016.
Though not stated, many have presumed “Andy” is Andrew McCabe, a deputy FBI director whose integrity Trump supporters have also questioned. McCabe’s wife ran for a Virginia state Senate seat as a Democrat and received donations from Clinton ally Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
The texts released Tuesday provide no insight regarding this “insurance policy,” and Page apparently never responded to Strzok about it.
“Maybe you’re meant to stay where you are because you’re meant to protect the country from that menace,” Page wrote in another conversation that has elicited scrutiny.
“I can protect our country at many levels,” Strzok replied.
These messages that vaguely suggest contingency plans to subvert Trump if he became president are where Republicans say the agents crossed the line between opinion and action. Rep. Tom Garrett, R-Va., described them as “antithetical to this nation’s democracy.”
“There’s a massive difference between ‘I support candidate X’ or ‘I support candidate Y’ and ‘here’s what we’re going to do just in case this person wins,’” he said. “That’s frightening.”
Former FBI agents say Strzok’s texts were at best unwise and at worst a threat to the public’s perception of the entire investigation, but they emphasized that having opinions about people or issues is not an inherently disqualifying attribute.
“I worked lots of cases where we had very strong opinions and arguments about individuals,” said David Gomez, who spent 28 years at the FBI, including much of Mueller’s tenure as director, “but you never let that influence how you work the case, because the evidence is either there or it’s not there.”
According to Luke Hunt, a professor at Radford University and former FBI special agent, investigators have some discretion as they follow techniques to uncover facts, but discretion plays a larger role in the prosecutorial stage.
"Like everyone else, it's of course true that FBI agents have political opinions,” Hunt said. “But investigations are driven by evidence, whether incriminating or exculpatory. It is for this reason that political opinions rarely play a role in an investigation.”
Maintaining that wall between personal biases and investigations can be difficult, but former FBI spokesperson John Iannarelli said the objectivity to do that is one thing the bureau looks for when it is recruiting. Agents are duty-bound to follow the facts, not their opinions.
“It’s not about guilt or innocence,” he said. “It’s about finding information to reach justice.”
Even if it turns out a few agents violated that principle, Iannarelli said it is too soon to conclude that Strzok’s views tainted the Clinton or Trump investigations, let alone the FBI as a whole.
“Agents are going to do their jobs properly and you have thousands of agents who adhere to this,” he said. “I think the investigation cannot be judged based on one person not using good judgment sending text messages or emails that he probably should not have done.”
However, James Wedick, who worked for the FBI for more than three decades, believes Mueller’s investigation now has a serious bias problem, regardless of how quickly Strzok was reassigned after the texts were uncovered.
“I don’t know that you’re going to remove the taint of anything they got their hands on, which would have to be redone,” said Wedick, who headed an anti-corruption unit in California for seven years. “It’s cavalier to suggest, ‘No, we just remove them and it’s fine now.’ Those texts reflect a bias that goes back pretty far.”
In an investigation of respected public figures, even the appearance of bias can be fatal.
“Appearances are reality,” Wedick said. “For the general public, appearances are reality. So when the FBI has an appearance of misbehaving or misconduct, that matters to an investigation greatly.”
He dismissed the assurances from Rosenstein and Wray that Mueller’s investigation is not compromised at this point.
“We’re all not fools,” he said. “We can all read that material. It’s biased.”
Reporters were invited by the DOJ to view selected text messages on Tuesday night in advance of Rosenstein’s testimony in what many saw as a break with standard procedure. Gomez found the release of the texts odd, given that Strzok and Page have not yet been proven to have engaged in any wrongdoing.
“People under investigation by the inspector general have an assumption of innocence,” he said. “I would have expected they wouldn’t be released until whatever allegations were made were adjudicated and he was found guilty or not guilty.”
With the inspector general’s probe ongoing and most of Mueller’s work taking place outside the public eye, there are few facts upon which to weigh the impartiality of the investigators. In the absence of clear evidence that officials’ personal views inappropriately influenced the course of the case, some experts saw GOP demands to shut down the investigation or appoint a second special counsel as political posturing.
“In the area of politics, you can find whatever you’re looking for,” Iannarelli said.
Gomez called the effort to delegitimize Mueller and his investigation “disheartening.”
“I think a lot of this is grandstanding on the part of Republicans in particular,” he said. “I personally find it offensive that so many people who last year were saying what a great choice Mueller was…today he’s the devil, he’s the worst of the worst.”
However, he recognized the tactic of trying to discredit the investigators as a standard, and often effective, defense attorney technique.
“All they need is reasonable doubt,” Gomez said. “Even in the public realm, all they need to do is establish reasonable doubt…. That’s what makes this particularly bad, that one agent can cause reasonable doubt to be established about the investigation.”