Republicans hammer Mueller and FBI
UNITED STATES: Republican activists and lawmakers are engaged in a multi-front attack on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of possible connections between associates of US President Donald Trump and Russian agents, trying to stop or curtail the investigation as it moves further into Trump’s inner circle.
For months, the president and his allies have been seizing on any whiff of possible impropriety by Mueller’s team or the FBI to argue that the Russia probe is stacked against Trump – potentially building the political support needed to dismiss the special counsel.
Several law enforcement officials say they are concerned that the constant drumbeat of conservative criticism seems designed to erode Mueller’s credibility, making it more politically palatable to remove, restrict or simply ignore his recommendations as his investigation progresses.
Fox News Channel personality Sean Hannity, one of the president’s informal advisers as well as one of his most vociferous defenders, has called Mueller ‘‘a disgrace to the American justice system’’ and said his team is ‘‘corrupt, abusively biased and political’’.
Several conservative lawmakers yesterday demanded more details of how the FBI proceeded last year in its probes of Hillary Clinton’s use of personal email and Russian election interference. Earlier this week, the conservative group Judicial Watch released an internal Justice Department email that, the group said, showed political bias against Trump by one of Mueller’s senior prosecutors.
Fresh ammunition came last weekend, when it was revealed that Peter Strzok, the top FBI agent on Mueller’s team, had been removed over politically charged texts he’d exchanged with another former member of the Mueller team, senior FBI lawyer Lisa Page. The texts appeared to favour Clinton and disparage Trump, according to people familiar with the matter.
‘‘The question really is, if Mueller was doing such a great job on investigating the Russian collusion, why could he have not found the conflict of interest within their own agency?’’ North Carolina Republican Mark Meadows asked.
Meadows, leader of the Freedom Caucus, cited a litany of other issues that he said showed bias on the part of the FBI and Mueller, including past political donations by lawyers on Mueller’s team.
Accusations of bias against Mueller from conservatives have become commonplace in the public debate about the president and the Russia probe, and Republicans are expected to grill FBI Director Christopher Wray about those matters when he testifies today before the House judiciary committee.
The chairman of that committee has been pressing the Justice Department to appoint a second special counsel – one to probe Clinton, as well as the FBI’s handling of past Clinton-related probes. Law enforcement officials also expect Wray will be pressed on that issue again today in the wake of the Strzok-Page revelations, which are being investigated by the Justice Department’s inspector general.
Mueller did get a public vote of confidence yesterday from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the senior Justice Department official overseeing the Russia probe – though Rosenstein did not address the Strzok inquiry.
Rosenstein was asked if he was satisfied with what he had seen so far from the special counsel’s office. He replied yes, and noted that some public charges had been filed.
Trump tweeted last weekend that the FBI’s reputation was ‘‘in tatters’’.
Strzok was a major player in both the Clinton and Russia probes, taking part in key interviews, including those of Clinton and Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty last week to lying to the FBI during that January questioning.
Yesterday, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Charles Grassley signed letters to the Justice Department and FBI demanding more information about Strzok’s communications.
‘‘Strzok’s behaviour and involvement in these two politically sensitive cases raises new concerns of inappropriate political influence in the work of the FBI,’’ Grassley wrote.
Matthew Miller, a Democrat and former Justice Department spokesman, said Grassley was part of a Republican effort to undermine Mueller’s credibility over the long run.
‘‘First, they want to kick up dust about Hillary Clinton so the conservative press has something to talk about that isn’t Trump’s misdeeds,’’ Miller said. ‘‘The eventual goal, though, is to delegitimise Mueller in such a way that he can either be fired or can be ignored if he concludes the president broke the law.’’
A Grassley spokesman called Miller’s comment ‘‘a baseless charge from a Democratic operative’’ and said the senator had a ‘‘three-decade record of government oversight across administrations’’.
Grassley also called Mueller an ‘‘honourable person’’ whose investigation should be allowed to ‘‘play out’’.
Fox News Channel personality Sean Hannity has called Special Counsel Robert Mueller ‘‘a disgrace to the American justice system’' and said his team is ‘‘corrupt, abusively biased and political’'.