Top congressional allies of President Donald Trump say a watchdog’s finding of anti-Trump bias by officials leading the FBI’s Russia inquiry could taint special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of links between Trump’s campaign and Russia.
Though Democrats insisted that the new report, a 500-page review by the Justice Department’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, should have no bearing on Mueller’s work, Republicans across the ideological spectrum appeared increasingly emboldened in their assertions that the special counsel’s investigation had been damaged — perhaps irreversibly so.
“I do think, as you see more evidence of bias against Donald Trump, it gives credence to people who wonder if this is becoming a witch hunt,” said Majority Whip Steve Scalise, the third-ranking Republican in the House, citing the new report.
At the heart of the GOP claims is evidence in the report that the investigator who helped launch the Russia investigation in July 2016 — agent Peter Strzok — was sharply biased against Trump and had even demonstrated “willingness to take official action to impact [Trump’s] electoral prospects.” A voluminous slate of text messages between Strzok and an FBI lawyer, Lisa Page, revealed intense anti-Trump hostility and even one message in which Strzok, just days after the launch of the investigation, predicted that “we’ll stop” Trump from becoming president.
Strzok was part of Mueller’s original team of agents when he took over the inquiry in May 2017, though the special counsel removed him quickly after he was alerted to Strzok’s hostility toward Trump.
Trump’s top Capitol Hill allies — a band of House conservatives — said the report bolstered their earlier contention that Mueller’s work is fatally flawed.
“At this point, the Mueller investigation must be reassessed in light of today’s information,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, who speaks regularly with Trump.
“It is smoking-gun evidence that the Mueller probe is built on a rotten foundation,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), a freshman lawmaker on the House Judiciary Committee who has also earned Trump’s praise for his criticism of the Russia inquiry. Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), another Trump backer, said the new report suggested that the investigation “should be dismantled immediately.”
But even Republicans who have been more measured about the special counsel say the fact that Strzok played an early role in the probe could be damaging, should Mueller try to build a case against Trump.
“The inspector general provides a factual basis to question the legitimacy of any findings against Donald Trump, if there are findings against Donald Trump,” said Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas), a former U.S. attorney. “Trump-Russia collusion — we now find out that for the first nine months, the investigation was headed by the guy who hated Donald Trump, said he would stop him from becoming president.”
The House Oversight Committee chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who has long defended the FBI and Mueller, said Strzok’s bias “was so pervasive and toxic as to call into question any other investigations he was part of, including his role in the investigation of what Russia did in 2016.”
The primary conclusion of Horowitz’s report was that despite a series of missteps by senior FBI officials — including the bureau’s director at the time, James Comey, as well as Strzok and others — there’s no evidence that the decision against prosecuting Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server was infected by bias. Strzok’s hostility to Trump, Horowitz concluded, was checked by the fact that multiple investigators, including those who demonstrated impartiality, reviewed investigative decision-making. Comey, in fact, breached protocol at times in ways that hurt Clinton politically, Horowitz found, and damaged the FBI’s reputation in the process. (Comey has said he disagrees with the findings).
Horowitz also concluded that Strzok came to prioritize the Russia probe over his earlier role in the Clinton investigation.
“We did not have confidence that Strzok’s decision was free from bias,” the inspector general concluded.
Strzok’s attorney Aitan Goelman rejected that finding.
“While pundits and politicians are using this matter to advance their agendas,” Goelman said in a statement, “the truth about Special Agent Strzok’s character and professionalism is found in the fact that every witness asked by the OIG said that Strzok’s work was never influenced by political views.”
Democrats across Capitol Hill said they saw no reason to suspect that Mueller’s work was compromised.
“Let’s be clear: This report has absolutely nothing to do with the Mueller investigation, which must be allowed to conclude without interference from the president,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a Judiciary Committee member, said in an interview: “People who want to attack the Mueller investigation are going to use this. And the fact that there’s no connection between Strzok having had an early, minor role in the Clinton investigation and none in the Mueller investigation changes their political desire to use it.”
Senators will get the first chance to quiz Horowitz about his conclusions at a Monday hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is portrayed by the report as failing to get a firm answer at two key junctures in the Clinton inquiry.
Former Attorney General Loretta Lynch declined to confirm to Grassley in 2015 that an investigation into Clinton’s email server was underway, and the FBI declined to inform Grassley that FBI’s deputy director at the time, Andrew McCabe, had recused himself from the investigation in response to a pre-election query about any measures being taken to stanch the appearance of “political bias,” according to Horowitz’s report.
Grassley’s statement looked ahead to his hearing as a forum to address the substance of the dense inspector general’s report, asserting only that the Justice Department and the FBI had “treated Secretary Clinton with kid gloves instead of impartially investigating.”
Grassley is still weighing a request for immunity from McCabe, who offered earlier this month to testify before the panel so long as his cooperation couldn’t be used in any future prosecution.
The inspector general referred McCabe for potential criminal charges in conjunction with another report released in April, though Thursday’s report faulted the FBI more so than McCabe for matters related to his recusal from the Clinton probe.
Another senior Judiciary Republican, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), said the day before the report’s release that the inspector general’s review and the Mueller investigation were “two different things.” His statement on Thursday stopped short of alleging that Strzok’s role in the early days of the Russia probe would infect Mueller’s work, decrying a “pervasive culture of misconduct and insubordination throughout the Bureau, for which Director Comey is ultimately accountable.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) agreed that Comey deserved the criticism he got from Horowitz for his missteps. He noted that “none detrimentally affected the Trump campaign. The one injured by anything described in this report was Hillary Clinton.”