Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said Wednesday that there is no reason to fire special counsel Robert Mueller from the Russia investigation and defended the FBI after text messages from a senior employee raised concerns of anti-Trump bias within the probe.
Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, Mr. Rosenstein said Mr. Mueller took quick action to oust FBI counterintelligence official Peter Strzok from the Russia investigation after learning of the text messages.
But the messages from 2015 and 2016 — including one in which Mr. Strzok called presidential candidate Donald Trump a “douche” and others in which he worried about the country’s fate if Mr. Trump won the election — left Republicans wondering whether the investigation into suspected collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign could be fair.
That Mr. Strzok also had a leading role in last year’s investigation into Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton added to Republicans’ complaints about the appearance of taint at the FBI.
“These text messages prove what we all suspected: High-ranking FBI officials involved in the Clinton investigation were personally invested in the outcome of the election and clearly let their strong political opinions cloud their professional judgment,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican.
Mr. Strzok was removed from the Mueller team this summer after the messages were discovered as part of the Justice Department’s inspector general investigation into the FBI’s handling of Mrs. Clinton’s use of a private email server.
Lisa Page, the FBI lawyer with whom Mr. Strzok was exchanging the messages, was also temporarily detailed to the special counsel team but was no longer working on the case when the text messages were found.
“Did Mr. Mueller take appropriate action in this case?” asked Rep. Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat, referring to the ouster of Mr. Strzok.
“Yes, he did,” Mr. Rosenstein said.
“Have you seen good cause to fire special counsel Mueller?” Mr. Nadler asked.
“No,” said Mr. Rosenstein, who appointed Mr. Mueller to lead the investigation into Russian meddling in the presidential election.
Asked what he would do if ordered to fire Mr. Mueller, Mr. Rosenstein said he would follow the regulations that outline the rules for removal of a special counsel.
“If there were good cause, I would act. If there were no good cause, I would not,” Mr. Rosenstein said.
The deputy attorney general, who is overseeing the special counsel after Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal, assured lawmakers that he has not been pressured by the president.
He said he hasn’t had any one-on-one meetings with the president but has spoken with Mr. Trump on the phone numerous times about matters he declined to disclose.
“I have not received any improper orders,” Mr. Rosenstein said.
The deputy attorney general declined to say Wednesday whether the Justice Department would reopen the Clinton email investigation if was found that political bias tainted the handling of that case. Mr. Rosenstein said there is a distinct difference between an employee who exhibits political bias and one who has a political affiliation and that he intends to wait for the inspector general to issue his report.
“When we get those results, we will take appropriate action,” he said.
The Washington Times reviewed copies of 375 messages between Mr. Strzok and Ms. Page that stretch from August 2015 through December 2016. The messages show the pair, who were reportedly having an extramarital affair at the time, texted consistently during debates and political conventions leading up to the presidential election about their impressions of the candidates.
“I am riled up. Trump is a [expletive] idiot, is unable to provide a coherent answer,” Mr. Strzok wrote in one exchange on Oct. 20, 2016, in the hours after the final presidential debate between Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton. “I can’t pull away. What the [expletive] happened to our country??!?!”
“I don’t know. But we’ll get it back. We’re America. We rock,” Ms. Page replied.
During an exchange in August 2016, Ms. Page forwarded an article on Mr. Trump to Mr. Strzok and wrote, “And maybe you’re meant to stay where you are because you’re meant to protect the country from that menace.”
Mr. Strzok responded, “Thanks. It’s absolutely true that we’re both very fortunate. And of course I’ll try and approach it that way. I just know it will be tough at times. I can protect our country at many levels, not sure if that helps.’”
In the messages, Mr. Strzok says he is “a conservative Dem” and writes about his concerns that Mr. Trump’s behavior is having a negative impact on Americans’ interactions with one another.
“Just went to a southern Virginia Walmart. I could SMELL the Trump support …,” he wrote in another August 2016 message.
Rep. Louie Gohmert, Texas Republican, said the text messages went far beyond basic political beliefs.
“This is not just political opinions. This is disgusting, unaccountable bias, and there is no way that could not affect a person’s work,” Mr. Gohmert said. “Were you aware just how biased Mr. Strzok was?”
“No, I was not,” Mr. Rosenstein said.
Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican, highlighted what he saw as a particularly egregious August 2016 text message in which Mr. Strzok appeared to reference a meeting involving FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe.
“I want to believe the path you threw out for consideration in Andy’s office — that there’s no way [Trump] gets elected — but I’m afraid we can’t take that risk,” Mr. Strzok wrote. “It’s like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you’re 40.”
Mr. Jordan called the text messages unbelievable and said a second special counsel would be needed to investigate whether Mr. Strzok’s political beliefs were affecting decisions at the Justice Department.
“This is what a lot of Americans are believing right now, and I certainly do — that the Comey FBI and the Obama Justice Department worked with one campaign to go after the other campaign. That is what everything points to,” Mr. Jordan said. “What’s it going to take to get another special counsel to answer these questions?”
Mr. Rosenstein said the inspector general was investigating already, and that was what turned up the text messages in question.
Rep. Ron DeSantis, Florida Republican, asked whether the Justice Department had assessed how much of its investigation was “infected” with Mr. Strzok’s bias. Mr. Rosenstein replied that one individual wouldn’t have been able to make decisions on the outcome of a case.
Asked about political donations that members of the Mueller team have given to Democrats in election campaigns, Mr. Rosenstein said Justice Department employees are allowed to have political opinions and he has talked with Mr. Mueller about ensuring those views do not affect investigators’ work.
“We recognize we have employees with political opinions. It’s our responsibility to make sure their opinions do not influence their actions,” Mr. Rosenstein said. “I believe Director Mueller understands that and he is running the office appropriately — recognizing that people have political views but ensuring that those views are not in any way a factor in how they conduct themselves in office.”