As right-wing politicians and media are increasingly casting aspersions on special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, the deputy attorney general repeatedly defended Mueller on Wednesday.
Rod Rosenstein, Mueller’s boss, repeatedly fended off suggestions from Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee that Mueller and his team are on a fishing expedition and are biased politically against President Trump. Rosenstein also fended off a raised-voice suggestion from a GOP congressman that he needs to appoint a special counsel to investigate the Russia investigations.
Rosenstein called Mueller “a dedicated, respected and heroic public servant,” specifically mentioning the former FBI director’s Vietnam combat experience.
Asked if he saw any good cause to fire Mueller, Rosenstein flatly answered: “No.”
If Rosenstein was ordered to do so regardless – a direction that would most likely come from Trump – Rosenstein answered, “I would not.”
“I won’t take any action, unless he’s violated his duties,” Rosenstein told Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX).
The issue has come to the fore after news leaked that Mueller over the summer fired one of his investigators on loan from the FBI, Peter Strzok, after Strzok sent and received text messages in 2015 and 2016 calling Trump an “idiot” and the prospect of his election “fucking terrifying.”
Strzok is quickly becoming a cause célèbre in the right-wing media to imply that Mueller is running the politicized witch hunt that Trump has always maintained the Russia probe is.
That reached a crescendo on Wednesday morning on the panel, as multiple Republicans took off the gloves and openly disparaged Mueller and his team. Rep. Steve King (R-IA) suggested Strzok discredited both the Mueller probe and the prior inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, since the veteran counterintelligence agent worked on that one, too.
“If he has his hands in so many things, what about the fruit of the poisoned tree?” King wondered, using a legal term indicating an invalid predicate for a prosecution.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) leaned on Strzok’s texts to assert, without any evidence, that the FBI both paid for the Fusion GPS dossier on Trump and used it as the basis for a foreign-intelligence surveillance warrant. Jordan portrayed Strzok as a rogue “James Bond” and revived a failed congressional GOP effort to fire Mueller – with the twist of assembling a new probe to go after Mueller’s team.
“You can disband the Mueller [probe], and appoint a special counsel to look into this,” said Jordan, his voice raising.
“I consider it very important to make sure a thorough review is done, and the inspector general is conducting one. That’s how we found out about the text messages,” Rosenstein said.
King’s colleague Steve Chabot (R-OH) ran through a list of Mueller investigators, beyond Strzok, he said had donated to Democratic campaigns but gave “nothing to Trump.” Chabot called them the “biased team under Robert Mueller” who ought to be “attired with Democrat donkeys” on their metaphorical clothes.
A career prosecutor, Rosenstein’s reputation took a major hit after he provided Trump a pretext for firing FBI Director James Comey in May, something Trump subsequently said he did because of the Russia investigation. That act prompted Mueller’s appointment as special counsel. Mueller answers to Rosenstein since Attorney General Sessions has recused himself. And on Wednesday, Rosenstein sounded like a protective boss.
Rosenstein batted back a suggestion from Lamar Smith of Texas that Mueller’s investigation has expanded to catch “all the fish in the sea, not just the Soviet sharks.” Smith implied that Mueller was looking improperly into the Trump family’s finances, something Trump has suggested to the New York Times would be a cause to fire Mueller.
“If I thought he was doing something inappropriate, I would take action,” Rosenstein said, after saying that Mueller has discussed with him the scope of his inquiry. “I’m accountable for what they’re doing. I know what they’re doing.”
When Chabot asked about the “biased team” Mueller has assembled, Rosenstein defended them, as well: “Our job [is] to make sure their opinions do not influence their actions. I believe Director Mueller understands that."
And when Smith asked about an “appearance of impropriety,” Rosenstein shot back that was “somewhat in the eye of the beholder,” and that “I do not believe – I’m not aware of impropriety.”
Trump has expressed anger at Rosenstein, even after Rosenstein helped him fire Comey. In June, a confidante told The Daily Beast that Trump was “furious” at his deputy attorney general.
When Rosenstein went before the Senate judiciary committee, Rosenstein repeatedly declined to affirm the practical independence of the Mueller probe, worrying Democrats.
But Rosenstein struck a far different tone on Wednesday. And when Democrat Hank Johnson of Georgia asked if he was “afraid of President Trump firing you,” Rosenstein replied: “No, I am not.”