(By KYLE CHENEY at Politico) With Mueller now focusing on the president, lawmakers level new charges of bias and even potential criminal misconduct.
Amid new signs that special counsel Robert Mueller is pursuing an obstruction of justice case against President Donald Trump, Republicans in Congress have intensified their own investigations of the Justice Department’s and FBI’s handling of inquiries into Trump’s ties to Russia.
Tuesday brought several dramatic developments in the Russia saga, including the news that Mueller recently interviewed Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the first Cabinet official known to be questioned in the investigation. The New York Times also reported that former FBI Director James Comey was interviewed by Mueller last year.
But even as Mueller showed apparent momentum, Republicans made new charges of political bias and even potential criminal misconduct in the nation’s top law enforcement agencies.
On Fox News, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House committee that oversees the Justice Department and FBI, alleged an anti-Trump “conspiracy” by FBI agents whose text message exchanges have been made public in selective bursts by GOP lawmakers.
“Some of these texts are very disturbing,” Goodlatte said, adding, “They illustrate a conspiracy on the part of some people, and we want to know a lot more about that.”
Republicans have been particularly incensed by a new revelation from the FBI that five months of text messages between a senior counterintelligence agent in the bureau, Peter Strzok — who was dismissed from Mueller’s team for unspecified reasons in July — and FBI attorney Lisa Page appear to be missing. The bureau revealed to Congress over the weekend that it hadn’t retained the messages, which officials attributed to technical problems with the bureau’s storage system.
Meanwhile, congressional Republicans pushing to release a secret memo they have drafted based on classified intelligence — which they claim reveals anti-Trump bias in the FBI — got a boost on Tuesday from the White House, which called for “full transparency” on the issue.
Separately, a GOP lawmaker on the House Judiciary Committee indicated that there were plans to recall Comey to testify about his handling of the 2016 investigation into Hillary Clinton.
Congressional Democrats say it’s no accident that the GOP probes have escalated as Mueller has homed in on Trump’s top allies. Reps. Adam Schiff of California, Jerry Nadler of New York and Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrats on three GOP-led committees unearthing internal FBI documents, say the Republican efforts smack of a partisan campaign to protect the president and sully the investigators who have questioned his behavior.
“Republicans are now attacking the FBI in order to undermine Special Counsel Mueller and protect President Trump, but their claims are directly at odds with the facts,” the three Democrats said in a joint statement on Tuesday afternoon.
Republicans have seized on text messages between Strzok and Page that were recently turned over by the Justice Department. In batches posted by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and described on Fox News by Reps. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and John Ratcliffe (R-Texas), the agents have been portrayed as politically biased against Trump, with some ambiguous messages characterized as evidence that their official actions may have been tainted by partisan animus.
In one exchange, Strzok and Page indicated that the Justice Department and FBI knew Clinton would escape charges in the investigation of her handling of classified information even before the FBI interviewed her.
In an interview, Ratcliffe said that exchange, among others, called into question Comey’s testimony before the committee in September 2016, when he said the bureau didn’t decide against prosecuting Clinton until after her official interview. Ratcliffe, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said he expected the committee to demand a new interview with Comey to reconcile those “inconsistencies.”
“There’s a mountain of evidence — a growing mountain of evidence — that seems entirely inconsistent with what he said under oath,” said Ratcliffe, a former U.S. attorney who has become a central player in the committee’s investigation of the FBI’s conduct in 2016.
“He may have testified truthfully, but there’s a lot of stuff that says that he didn’t,” Ratcliffe continued, adding: “Trust me: He will either appear and testify or he will exercise his Fifth Amendment right” against self-incrimination.
Ratcliffe said that recalling Comey might have to wait until lawmakers can interview other witnesses and review up to 1.2 million relevant documents that the Justice Department has begun turning over in batches. But the House Intelligence Committee is mounting a more immediate push to make public a classified memo that Republicans have indicated will provide evidence of misconduct by FBI officials in their handling of a surveillance program that was used to spy on a Trump campaign aide in 2016.
As early as next Wednesday, the panel is expected to employ a never-before-used process to disclose the memo, put together by staff of its chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.). If it does, Trump will have up to five days to either approve or reject their decision. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to say what Trump would do, but she endorsed “full transparency.”
“We certainly support full transparency, and we believe that’s at the House Intel Committee to make that choice at this point,” Sanders said at the White House press briefing on Tuesday.
Democrats who have viewed the memo have rejected it as a compilation of “distortions” that misrepresents the underlying intelligence it’s based on.
In the middle of the increasingly pitched partisan offensives, the FBI announced that chief of staff James Rybicki — a former member of Comey’s close-knit team — would leave the agency and be replaced by an ally of Comey’s successor, Christopher Wray.
Rybicki was interviewed last week by the House oversight and judiciary committees, and lawmakers involved in the interview say they didn’t believe that anything in his testimony precipitated his departure. But a Democrat who was in the room said he worried that the grilling Rybicki and others have faced could have a chilling effect on the activity of FBI officials.