- As special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation ramps up, President Donald Trump’s allies have doubled down on claims that Mueller’s team is biased against him.
- Right-wing figures latched onto new reports last week that two investigators on Mueller’s team expressed views favouring former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
- FBI veterans refute that characterization, saying agents don’t let political views interfere with their work.
- One former federal prosecutor called the strategy a “weapon of desperation.”
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election is ramping up, and with it, President Donald Trump’s allies are reaching new heights to discredit Mueller and the Russia probe.
The special counsel has so far charged four of Trump’s former associates as part of the investigation: former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, former adviser and Manafort associate Rick Gates, former foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, and former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Mueller is also said to be building an obstruction-of-justice case against the president, stemming mainly from Trump’s decision to fire FBI director James Comey in May.
As Mueller’s investigation pushes on, Trump’s loyalists in politics and the media have launched a campaign focused on painting the special counsel and his investigators as biased and partisan, while echoing Trump’s demands that the FBI also investigate Comey and Trump’s former opponent, Hillary Clinton, over their alleged Russia ties.
Conservative talking heads and Trump allies latched onto a string of damaging reports this week about investigators on Mueller’s team.
The Washington Post reported that Peter Strzok, a widely respected FBI counterintelligence veteran who used to work with Mueller on the Russia investigation, was ousted in July because he exchanged texts with a colleague at the FBI that could have shown that he favoured Clinton over Trump.
Another report said that Strzok was the official who changedComey’s final characterization of Clinton’s use of a private email server from “grossly negligent” – which would have carried criminal penalties – to “extremely careless.”
Andrew Weissman, a seasoned prosecutor on Mueller’s team who specialises in “flipping” witnesses, was also roped into the controversy when the conservative watchdog group, Judicial Watch, released an email on Tuesday in which Weissman praised former acting attorney general Sally Yates for refusing to defend Trump’s initial travel ban in January. It also emerged this week that Weissman attended Clinton’s election night party at the Jacob Javits Center in New York last year.
Right-wing media lashes out
The revelations drew intense backlash from Trump loyalists.
Sean Hannity, the Fox News opinion commentator who is one of Trump’s staunchest defenders, called Mueller’s team“extremely biased” and “hyper-partisan” on Tuesday. He added that Mueller’s investigation “has put the country now on the brink of becoming a banana republic.”
“Mueller’s stooges are literally doing everything within their power and then some to try and remove President Trump from office,” Hannity told his 3 million viewers.
On Hannity’s show Wednesday night, Fox News legal analyst Gregg Jarrett called Mueller’s investigation “illegitimate and corrupt,” and accused the special counsel of using the FBI as a political weapon and acting as “America’s secret police.”
“Secret surveillance, wiretapping, intimidation, harassment and threats,” Jarrett said. “It’s like the old KGB that comes for you in the dark of the night, banging through your door.”
Jarrett added that the FBI had turned into a “shadow government.”
Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham weighed in on the controversy, as well.
“What we are seeing here is a pattern and practice of Mueller hiring known Clinton and Obama political insiders and boosters, supporters, to undo a presidential election. That was the election of Donald Trump,” she told viewers on Tuesday.
The right-leaning Wall Street Journal editorial board published a column on Monday pointing to the Strzok texts as evidence of bias on Mueller’s team. The board said Mueller was too conflicted to “investigate the FBI and should step down in favour of someone more credible.”
Trump, who has frequently referred to the Russia investigation as a politically-motivated “witch hunt,” threw in his two cents on the Strzok revelations last week, retweeting Twitter user Paul Sperry, who said Strzok was “busted” and calling for FBI director Chris Wray to “clean house” at the bureau, which he claimed was “infected” by anti-Trump bias.
“After years of Comey, with the phony and dishonest Clinton investigation (and more), running the FBI, its reputation is in Tatters – worst in History!” he tweeted. “But fear not, we will bring it back to greatness.”
‘A weapon of desperation’
Former federal prosecutors and FBI agents agreed that investigators should be careful about expressing their personal views while working on politically charged cases, but they pushed back on the claims of bias on Mueller’s team from Trump’s allies.
“I can tell you I never knew what Andrew [Weissman’s] politics were when we were in the same office,” said Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor and longtime white collar defence lawyer who worked with Weissman in the past.
“Politics never comes up between prosecutors in my experience. We have them, of course. We are citizens. But among the feds I worked with, it would have been incredibly inappropriate for anyone to express a political view at work.”
Cotter also added that in the law enforcement field, it was “rather irrelevant” to point to officials’ political affiliation. “If you allege bias by someone carrying out their job, point to facts, not fact-free arguments that all Republicans will be corrupt against Democrats or vice versa,” he said.
Joseph Pelcher, a former FBI counterintelligence operative who was stationed in Russia and specialised in organised crime, said that while agents should be careful about openly expressing their opinions, “there is certainly nothing wrong with holding political views as long as it doesn’t interfere with an investigation.”
LaRae Quy, who served as a covert operative at the FBI for 24 years, largely echoed that point.
“It’s very important for agents to appear (and be) apolitical. I know that’s ‘pie in the sky’ since we all have political views,” she said. “But the non-partisan aspect of an agent’s job is important.”
That said, “agents are allowed to express their personal opinions… and encouraged to vote and be responsible citizens,” Quy said. “Almost every agent I know votes and upholds the democratic process. They are just smart enough to keep their mouth shut and their minds open.”
Mainstream conservatives jump on the bandwagon
But it looks like the right-wing and far-right talking point has trickled into the comments of more mainstream conservative figures and lawmakers.
“If it’s true that Andrew Weissmann attended Hillary’s victory party, this is getting out of hand,” tweeted Ari Fleischer, who served as White House press secretary under President George W. Bush.
During a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Thursday, in which Wray was testifying, Republican Rep. Steve Chabot called “the depths of this anti-Trump bias” on the special counsel’s team “absolutely shocking.”
Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley said this week that Strzok’s behaviour and involvement in the Clinton email investigation and the Trump-Russia probe “raises new concerns of inappropriate political influence in the work of the FBI.”
Grassley also demanded more information about Strzok’s communications with Lisa Page, the FBI lawyer with whom he exchanged texts about Clinton and Trump.
“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?” asked Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina.
Meadows was likely referring to the 2010 Uranium One deal, which was approved by the Obama administration. After the deal made its way back into headlines in October – shortly before Manafort and Gates were indicted – a growing chorus of conservative legislators and commentators began calling for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to appoint a second special counsel to investigate Comey’s and the Clinton Foundation’s roles in the deal’s approval.
Extensive reporting and fact-checking found no signs of wrongdoing when the Obama administration allowed Rosatom, a Russian nuclear energy firm, to acquire Canada-based Uranium One, which had significant mining stakes in the US. The deal required approval from several government agencies, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which Clinton had no control over.
Cotter said Sunday that the emergence of the right wing’s argument that Mueller or his investigators are politically biased against Trump seems to be “strong circumstantial evidence that those who fear what the Mueller investigation may find have no actual fact-based criticisms to make.”
Their “reliance on character attacks,” he said, are “a weapon of desperation.”
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