House Republicans hit Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein with a barrage of questions about what they say is an anti-Trump bias at the FBI and Justice Department, in an attack aimed at undermining Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
As Rosenstein testified Wednesday before the House Judiciary Committee, Republicans set out a bill of particulars intended to raise doubts about the motives of those involved in the probe into whether President Donald Trump or associates colluded with Russia to meddle in last year’s election.
The “investigations must not be tainted by individuals imposing their own political prejudices,” committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia said in a prepared statement for the hearing. “We are now beginning to understand the magnitude of this insider bias on Mr. Mueller’s team.”
Republicans including Goodlatte are urging appointment of a second special counsel just to look into allegations that prosecutors and agents favored Trump’s Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton last year, as several congressional inquiries have deteriorated into bitter partisan sniping.
Republicans have seized on the disclosure that a top FBI agent assigned to the investigation, Peter Strzok, sent anti-Trump texts in exchanges with another FBI official last summer. Goodlatte said Strzok called Trump an “idiot” and that the messages showed high-ranking FBI officials “were personally vested in the outcome of the election, and clearly let their strong political opinions cloud their professional judgment.”
Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York, the Judiciary Committee’s top Democrat, denounced the Republican efforts to challenge the Russia inquiry, saying, “President Trump has engaged in a persistent and dangerous effort to discredit both the free press and the Department of Justice.”
In an opening statement, Rosenstein stuck to general comments on Justice Department policy, saying “justice requires a fair and impartial process. That is why we have a special responsibility to follow ethical and professional standards.”
Suggesting he’d refuse to discuss some issues, Rosenstein said that “we always seek to accommodate congressional oversight requests while protecting the integrity of investigations, preserving the department’s independence, and safeguarding sensitive information.”
But Rosenstein can’t dodge pointed questions about the Russia investigation as easily as current FBI Director Christopher Wray and Attorney General Jeff Sessions did during recent hearings. That’s because Rosenstein appointed Mueller and is the only person with the power to fire him or stop parts of his investigation.
Rosenstein named Mueller to lead the investigation in May after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. Rosenstein had that authority after Sessions recused himself from the investigation because he was a senior adviser in Trump’s election campaign.
Several congressional committees have been looking into aspects of the Russian meddling, which U.S. intelligence agencies have found was intended to hurt Clinton and ultimately help Trump win. But initial efforts to produce consensus have largely dissolved amid partisan maneuvering. Only the Senate Intelligence Committee has managed to maintain a mostly bipartisan agenda.
On the Judiciary Committee, Republicans pushed Rosenstein to explain whether a dossier with unverified allegations against Trump, some of them salacious, was used as the sole justification to open the Russia investigation and obtain surveillance warrants under Comey, and whether officials now working for Mueller are politically biased against Trump, Jordan said.
Among the Republican complaints is that a senior Justice Department official, Bruce Ohr, had connections to the company that created the dossier, which was largely financed by Clinton’s campaign. Ohr was demoted last week.
Court papers made public on Tuesday confirmed that Ohr’s wife was paid by Fusion GPS, the opposition-research firm behind the anti-Trump dossier. In a federal court affidavit, Glenn Simpson, the firm’s founder, confirmed that he met with Ohr last year, at Ohr’s request, in November after the election.
Trump too has seized on some of these questions, writing on Twitter that the FBI’s reputation is “in tatters.”
Democrats on the Judiciary Committee planned to seek assurances from Rosenstein that he will protect Mueller and rebuff any efforts by Trump or the White House to interfere in the investigation.
Committee Democrat Zoe Lofgren of California said before the hearing that Republican attacks on the FBI and Justice Department officials are “tawdry” and an effort to “pre-discredit evidence” from Mueller’s probe.
“It’s pretty apparent what they are trying to do,” she said.
Some House Republicans and their Senate counterparts say a second special counsel should investigate issues including Comey’s handling of the FBI investigation into Clinton’s use of private emails when she was secretary of state and a 2010 decision by the Obama administration that let Russia to buy a stake in U.S. uranium production.
Asked whether a second special counsel is needed, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters Tuesday, “If we are going to investigate things, let’s look at something where there’s some real evidence.” She said Trump “has great concern about some of the conduct that’s taken place.”
Rosenstein gave Mueller a broad mandate to investigate any links or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with Trump’s campaign, as well as any matters that may arise directly from the investigation.
To date, Mueller has indicted Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and another campaign aide, Rick Gates. The special counsel also secured a plea deal and cooperation agreement from Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn for lying to FBI agents about his contacts with Russians. A low-level foreign policy adviser to the campaign also pleaded guilty to lying to investigators.
Some Judiciary Committee Republicans dismissed the premise that they’re involved in a concerted effort to undermine Mueller or his investigation.
“I have defended Mueller from Day One, and you won’t find anything to the contrary,” Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, who also heads the House Oversight Committee and is a former prosecutor, said before the hearing.