Last May, the appointment of Robert Mueller as Special Counsel to lead the Russia investigation was applauded by both Republicans and Democrats. Mueller is a Republican known for professionalism, lack of partisanship and integrity. He was seen as the perfect choice to conduct an impartial investigation.
But in recent months, as Mueller has begun handing down indictments and guilty pleas, he has become the focus of growing attacks from President Trump’s allies as the leader of a partisan “witch hunt.” So, how did Mueller, a buttoned-down, by-the-book former FBI Director end up the villain?
The investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election has infuriated President Trump nearly every day since he took office. He’s called it a hoax, a “witch hunt” and a taxpayer-funded charade. He pushed former FBI Director James Comey to make it go away. Comey refused. Then, his frustration with the Russia investigation boiling over, Trump fired him.
The ‘Single Greatest Witch Hunt’
After Trump fired Comey, it was hard to see how the FBI could carry out an impartial investigation into Russia. Whoever Trump nominated to replace him would fear that, if they pushed too hard in investigating Russia, they might suffer the same fate. And that’s where Robert Mueller comes into the picture.
A Special Counsel is appointed to investigate matters that raise a conflict of interest. And this was a textbook case. Eight days after Comey was fired, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, a Trump appointee, made the decision to name Mueller special counsel.
The morning after Mueller was named, Trump tweeted his fury. “This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!”
But, it’s important to remember that it was one of Trump’s own appointees — not Hillary Clinton, not some deep state cabal, that appointed the special counsel. And under the circumstances, Rosenstein had no other choice.
As 2017 wound down, the attacks on Mueller grew louder. In early December, news broke that months earlier, Mueller had removed Peter Strzok, a Senior FBI agent working on the probe, from the investigation after learning Strzok had sent personal text messages disparaging of Trump. While this might have been seen as an indication that Mueller was trying to protect the investigation from bias, conservative commentators pounced nonetheless.
The texts between Strzok and another FBI agent, Lisa Page, with whom he was having an affair at the time, were mostly typical political banter. He ridiculed some of Trump’s more shocking comments and called him an idiot. And, they weren’t all about Trump. In one text, Stryzok praised John Kasich. In another, he complained about the media’s bias in favor of Hillary Clinton.
But, a text Strzok sent to Page in August of 2016, discussing an “insurance policy” has received a great deal of attention.
“I want to believe the path you threw out for consideration in Andy’s office, — that there’s no way he gets elected — but I’m afraid we can’t take that risk. It’s like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you’re 40.”
FBI agents are allowed to have political opinions. It would be silly to suggest that only political allies of a target of an investigation can give them a fair shake. Political views only become a problem if they form the basis for some sort of official action. Is that what’s being suggested here? Probably not.
Exactly what Strzok meant by “insurance policy” is a matter of intense debate.
Many conservative commentators argue that he was suggesting stepping up the Russia investigation to thwart Trump’s chances of winning. If so, it would be very concerning. Using a law enforcement agency to influence an election is highly illegal.
But, that did not happen. There was a lot of debate within the FBI that summer about whether they should publicly reveal the investigation into Trump. FBI Director Comey and his Deputy Andrew McCabe were concerned about inserting the FBI into the political rough and tumble of the campaign in a way that might impact the outcome of the election. And, they feared that showing their hand before the investigation was more developed might prompt the Russians to cover their tracks before they could understand what happened.
It appears that this was the context for Strzok’s tweet. According to a Wall Street Journal report, sources close to Strzok say the text was addressing a point Page had made in a meeting with Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe. Because Trump was unlikely to win, she argued, there was little urgency to investigate potential collusion between Trump and Russia.
In his text, Strzok disagreed. They needed to gather as much information as possible, even if it meant the investigation would become public. If Trump won, it would be vital to know whether any of his appointees had been compromised by Russia. That may be unlikely, but so is dying at 40, yet you buy an “insurance policy” anyway. Ultimately, Strzok’s argument for a more aggressive investigation was overruled by Comey and McCabe, who favored Page’s more passive approach.
Without more context, it’s hard to know for sure what the right interpretation is. However, the Justice Department’s inspector general is investigating this among other things and is expected to report back this Spring. Whatever the case, it does seem that Strzok held strong opinions about Trump. Mueller‘s decision to remove him from the investigation seems appropriate.
The bottom line: if the FBI was really trying to stop Trump, they’d have taken the investigation public before the election. The fact that they chose to wait is a pretty good indication that wasn’t the objective. When Robert Mueller’s investigation is done, he’ll either have to goods or he won’t. The evidence, not the political preferences of the people who helped gather it will be all that matters.