Republicans push Justice Department for second special counsel
The publication of politically charged text messages by an agent responsible for investigating Donald Trump's presidential campaign fueled calls by Republicans for a new investigation into political bias and impropriety on the part of the Department of Justice and FBI.
On Tuesday, the Justice Department gave the press access to dozens of anti-Trump, profanity-laced text messages exchanged between FBI agent Peter Strzok, one of the lead investigators on Robert Mueller's special counsel, and his girlfriend, Lisa Page, a top lawyer who also served under Mueller.
In the messages, Strzok expressed disdain for Trump referring to him as "an idiot," saying "we can't take the risk" of his getting elected. The agent's text also revealed his support for Hillary Clinton who he said "should win 100,000,000 – 0." Beyond Clinton and Trump, Strzok also expressed blanket disgust with other politicians including Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley, Republican candidate John Kasich, and both parties' leadership of the Department of Justice, Eric Holder and Jeff Sessions.
"You have a complete conflict of interest, multiple conflicts of interest," Jay Sekulow stated in an interview with Sinclair Broadcast Group.
As the content of Strzok's messages was made public, Sekulow, one of Donald Trump's lawyers officially joined a group of congressional Republicans in demanding a second special counsel investigation, separate from Robert Mueller's, to look into political bias at the FBI and DOJ, and whether those agencies fairly and appropriately handled the Clinton investigation and the Mueller investigation.
"There's a deep-seated problem within the FBI and Department of Justice right now," Sekulow said. "There is a real credibility problem here, and the agency needs to take corrective action to get this fixed, because I think its an embarrassment and it puts the country at risk."
That corrective action, he said, includes the appointment of a new special counsel to look into Strzok and how his political views may have shaped the ongoing investigation into Donald Trump's campaign before he was removed from Mueller's team in July.
Sekulow further argued that a second special counsel should also look into senior Justice Department official Bruce Ohr, whose wife reportedly worked with Fusion GPS, the firm responsible for producing an anti-Trump intelligence dossier paid for by the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee. Ohr, who was demoted this week, allegedly met with the author of the dossier, Christopher Steele, while working on the Russia investigation, but did not inform his superiors that he had done so.
"This is the kind of situation where a special counsel was warranted," Sekulow charged. "We believe it has reached that level of criminality, at least allegations as to criminality and impropriety, that it needs to be investigated immediately."
On Capitol Hill, Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee raised the issue with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the man responsible for overseeing the Mueller probe. Asked by multiple lawmakers whether he would convene a second special counsel, Rosenstein's response was straightforward: "My simple answer to it would be that if we believe there was a basis for an investigation or a special counsel, I can assure you that we would act."
Ultimately, Rosenstein told the committee that the conditions do not exist to warrant a special counsel investigation. He specifically cited the ongoing independent Department of Justice inspector general investigation, which is currently reviewing the FBI and DOJ's handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation and any irregularities or improprieties. Until that investigation is complete, Rosenstein noted, his office cannot justify a second special counsel.
Based on testimony from Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray, Democrat Hakeem Jeffries of New York argued that "there is no basis in fact or law for the Department of Justice to appoint a [second] special counsel."
Republican congressman and former U.S. attorneyJohn Ratcliffe of Texas affirmed the recent positions taken by Wray and Rosenstein, noting that while neither is convinced there is a basis for a special counsel at this point, they remain open to the idea.
"I think the defining factor there is going to be the inspector general report, which is due sometime in January or February," he said. "I think it will shed light onto whether or not a special counsel is justified or warranted."
There are currently 20 members of the House Judiciary Committee who are demanding the Department of Justice open a second special counsel investigation. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) is one of them. The congressman also hopes to go further and believes the current investigation led by Robert Mueller should be dissolved. "The public trust in this whole thing is gone," he stated.
In an aggressive series of questions aimed at Rod Rosenstein, Jordan claimed that the Department of Justice and FBI under the Obama administration "worked with one campaign to go after the other," and that the evidence around Strzok, Ohr and others demonstrates an intent to target Donald Trump.
"You're the guy in charge," Jordan argued. "You could disband the special Mueller prosecutor and you can do what we've all called for, appoint a second special counsel to look into this."
Other Republicans hope to see Mueller's team disbanded, including Rep. Ron Desantis of Florida, who introduced a provision in August that would have forced the special counsel to disbanded and defunded after 180 days.
Despite facing pressure from Jordan and others, Rosenstein made it clear to members of the committee that he has no intention of firing Robert Mueller or dissolving the special counsel. He further stated that "nobody has communicated to me the desire to remove Robert Mueller."
The removal of multiple investigators from Mueller's team for the appearance of political bias, has led Republicans to call into question the overall credibility and foundation of the special counsel's work. Sekulow referred to the investigative work done by the likes of Ohr and Strzok as "the fruit of the poisonous tree," and noted that their work is likely still being utilized as part of the investigation.
A number of unverified reports have emerged alleging that Strzok was responsible for setting the parameters of the Trump-Russia investigation. Rod Rosenstein said on Wednesday that he could not discuss to what extent the Russia investigation is based on Strzok's work, noting the matter is under review by the Intelligence Committee.
The Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (Va.) argued that the recent developments have called into question the reputation of the FBI and Department of Justice.
"We are now beginning to better understand the magnitude of this insider bias on Mr. Mueller's team," Goodlatte warned. "This taint of politicization should concern all Americans who have pride in the fairness of our nation's justice system."
Both Republicans, Democrats and career Justice Department officials have all affirmed that there is nothing wrong with having political views, or even expressing those views. HoweverRep. Louis Gohmert (R-Texas) concluded that "when you call the President of the United States the kinds of names that Strzok and others have, there's no way it doesn't affect your job."
Democrats on the committee are hoping to move beyond calls from their Republican colleagues to begin what they view as a partisan exercise.
Ranking Democrat Jerrold Nadler of New York accused Republicans of trying to "give cover" to President Trump.
"My Republican colleagues seem singularly focused on their call for a second special counsel and, failing that, on the need to investigate the investigators ourselves," Nadler argued.
"I understand the instinct to want to give cover to the president," Nadler continued, stating that "this investigation into the investigation cannot credibly be a priority for this committee at this time."
Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas) accused congressional Republicans of politicizing the special counsel. "It is nothing but politics, she told Sinclair Broadcast Group, adding, "We should investigate out of facts, not out of political pressure."
A number of Democrats were similarly unfazed by the anti-Trump texts exchanged between Strzok and Lisa Page, noting that the views Strzok expressed were in line with many Americans.
"They shared an opinion about the President of the United States which most American agree with," Rep. Louis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) told reporters, noting he wasn't shocked to learn that FBI agents "think the president is an idiot."
"Welcome to the world that most Americans believe," he said, "I think they're on target."