- Aaron Bernstein/Reuters
- Allies of President Donald Trump have been attacking special counsel Robert Mueller’s team amid revelations of potential political biases.
- One veteran agent was removed from Mueller’s team over the summer after the Justice Department learned of text messages that could be perceived as anti-Trump.
- Former FBI agents say the attacks on Mueller’s team are “nonsense.”
Attacks on special counsel Robert Mueller’s team of investigators escalated sharply last week, culminating in a partisan haranguing of the FBI director on Thursday over the perceived missteps of his predecessor.
Conservative and far-right media outlets, already skeptical of Mueller’s probe into President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia, grew louder in their calls for FBI Director Chris Wray to either clean house or for Mueller to resign. It came after news that two special counsel investigators at one point exhibited perceived political bias.
Trump again characterized the criminal justice system as “rigged” during a rally in Florida on Friday, echoing comments he made last weekend following former national security Michael Flynn’s guilty plea as part of Mueller’s probe.
“So General Flynn lies to the FBI and his life is destroyed, while Crooked Hillary Clinton, on that now famous FBI holiday ‘interrogation’ with no swearing in and no recording, lies many times,” Trump tweeted last Saturday. “And nothing happens to her? Rigged system, or just a double standard?”
Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, implored Wray during a hearing on Thursday to “repair the damage done by” former FBI Director James Comey. And he took a shot at Mueller’s investigation, questioning “the magnitude of insider bias” that exists on his team.
Former FBI agents who spoke to Business Insider this week characterized the outcry as “nonsense” aimed at discrediting an investigation that has dogged Trump and the GOP more broadly for over a year.
Frank Montoya, Jr., a former FBI special agent who served as the Director of the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, was blunt.
“There is a lot of anger in the FBI (the entire intelligence community, for that matter) over how this president will say nary a negative word about the Russians, but will insult us every chance he gets,” he said.
‘Moscow was happy, I’m sure’
Peter Strzok, a veteran counterintelligence agent who was among those overseeing the investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s private email server last year, was abruptly removed from Mueller’s Russia probe in late July and relegated to the human resources department.
Neither Mueller nor the Justice Department have commented on Strzok’s sudden demotion. But he was apparently removed as part of a broader investigation into the bureau’s handling of the Clinton email probe by the DOJ’s inspector general.
Strzok reportedly sent text messages during the presidential campaign to another member of Mueller’s team, Lisa Page, that could be perceived as anti-Trump. He and Page were also having an extramarital affair that the DOJ worried could make them both subject to blackmail. Page left Mueller’s team over the summer for unrelated reasons.
High-profile conservative figures and Trump allies, such as the conservative-leaning Wall Street Journal editorial board and Fox News host Sean Hannity, quickly weaponized another damaging report published last week. It said Strzok had been instrumental in changing Comey’s final characterization of Clinton’s conduct from “grossly negligent” – which would have carried legal consequences – to “extremely careless.”
Former FBI agents who knew and worked with Strzok acknowledged that he should have been more circumspect with his comments, even if they were private, given the highly politicized nature of both the Clinton and Russia probes. But they broadly characterized him as a professional who never expressed his political opinions when conducting an investigation.
Montoya, who served in the bureau for over two decades, called Strzok “an exceptional agent” and “rising star” whose removal from Mueller’s probe was “a great loss to the investigation.”
“Moscow was happy, I’m sure when that happened,” he said.
“There’s a lot of partisan political white noise out there about Pete’s supposed ‘bias,'” Montoya said. “It’s all nonsense. I’ve known Pete for a long time. I didn’t know what his political opinions were. Never asked. Never cared. That’s the way it was for the vast majority of us.”
Another veteran FBI counterintelligence agent who knew Strzok but requested anonymity to discuss internal DOJ decisions called him an “expert” in counterintelligence work who “rose to the level of Deputy Assistant Director in the usual way: by being a reliable, consistent, and capable member of the executive team.”
‘He didn’t act alone’
The nature of FBI investigations makes it impossible for one employee to exert outsized influence over others, former agents emphasized.
“There’s been a lot of accusation lately in the public arena about how Pete’s supposed biases may have affected outcome of the email investigation and predication for Russia investigation,” Montoya said. “More nonsense.”
“Pete wasn’t the only guy working on those cases,” he added. “His was one voice, albeit an important one, but there were other important voices in the mix, too.”
With regard to the email investigation, Montoya said, “professional, experienced prosecutors and senior leadership (above Pete) in the FBI played the key roles in the final decision not to prosecute Clinton.
Pete may have helped draft the public messaging at the conclusion of the case, but he didn’t act alone. I participated in quite a few of these matters myself and the planning process was always a group effort.”
Former FBI unit chief Mark Rossini, who spent 17 years at the bureau, largely agreed.
“It would be literally impossible for one human being to have the power to change or manipulate evidence or intelligence according to their own political preferences,” he said.
“FBI agents, like anyone else, are human beings. We are allowed to have our political beliefs. If anything, the overwhelming majority of agents are conservative Republicans,” he added.
Former FBI counterintelligence agent Asha Rangappa made a similar point in an interview earlier this week.
“The FBI investigators who are working on any given day will probably be mostly politically conservative,” Rangappa said, drawing from her interactions with agents under President George W. Bush. That is one reason, she said, why Republicans should “think carefully” about the precedent they’re setting in pointing to agents’ political leanings as evidence of a tainted investigation.
‘He was thrown to the wolves’
- Aaron Bernstein/Reuters
Still, some agents said there is lingering resentment over Comey’s handling of the Clinton email probe – not necessarily because of the conclusions he drew, but because of the process decisions he made at various points in the investigation that left the bureau vulnerable to partisan attacks.
The two that drew the biggest criticism last year: an unprecedented press conference in which he chastised Clinton for using a private server but ultimately cleared her of criminal wrongdoing; and a letter to Congress announcing that he was effectively reopening the case 11 days before the election.
“There was a perception among many agents that the bureau was tending to become more politicized than it had been in the past,” said former FBI special agent Mark Ruskin, author of “The Pretender: My Life Undercover for the FBI.”
“Some believed that Comey was allowing political winds to buffet the bureau as a whole,” he continued. “And there was an ambiguity about which way it was even being politicized.”
In any case, Ruskin said, “both sides of the aisle were getting the impression that the bureau was not acting completely objectively, and the agents blamed it more on Comey because he seemed to waffle.” The ambiguity was frustrating, Ruskin said, given Comey’s propensity for taking matters into his own hands.
But the agents suggested the perceived politicization of the FBI was not the result of individual agents’ biases. Incidentally, it came because of the former director’s excessive attempts to avoid the appearance of partisanship.
“I think Comey did more damage than he realized or intended by how he handled things last year,” said former FBI counterintelligence agent Scott Olson.”But Director Wray has corrected that by now.”
Some still have questions, however, about why Strzok was “thrown to the wolves.”
“I think Pete did what he was asked to do, and then he was thrown to the wolves,” said the former counterintelligence agent who requested anonymity to discuss Strzok. “What I don’t yet see is what Mueller is getting out of it. But there is a lot going on here that is still not known to the public.”