FBI agent becomes GOP public enemy No. 1

Republicans have a new public enemy No. 1: Peter Strzok, the FBI agent who was reassigned from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigative team over allegedly anti-Trump text messages he sent during the presidential race.

A slate of reports from multiple outlets have catapulted the once-anonymous intelligence agent into the political maelstrom over what Republicans say is a woeful double standard of political bias at the FBI.

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According to one report from CNN, Strzok, who also worked on the investigation into Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDems make history, and other takeaways from Tuesday's primaries Establishment-backed Vukmir wins Wisconsin GOP Senate primary Ironworker and star of viral video wins Dem primary for Speaker Ryan's seat MORE’s use of a private email server while secretary of State, was behind then-FBI Director James Comey’s decision to call Clinton “extremely careless” in handling classified information over the server instead of “grossly negligent.”

Trump and his allies have used the stories about Strzok to bolster their argument that the investigation into Russian election meddling is a politically motivated “witch hunt” — and that the investigation into Clinton’s server was a sham.

“How did the Russia investigation start? Did Peter Strzok — did he start it?” Rep. Ron DeSantisRonald Dion DeSantisJimmy Buffett endorses Dem in Florida governor race Trump’s endorsements cement power but come with risks Michigan heavyweights to face off for governor in November MORE (R-Fla.) demanded of FBI Director Christopher Wray during an oversight hearing last week.

Former Justice Department officials say such suggestions are ridiculous and dispute the notion that a single agent could wield the kind of influence suggested by critics such as DeSantis.

One former senior official at the FBI who oversaw national security matters said more than a dozen officials weighed in on the language to be used in Comey’s July 2016 remarks. Strzok, the deputy assistant director of counterintelligence, was far from the most senior person involved.

Former officials also dispute the notion that Strzok would not have been able to check his own personal political biases to be part of an effective leadership team on the investigation — although they note that Mueller may still have acted wisely to reassign him to safeguard the public’s trust in the investigation.

“Every FBI agent, and Pete is no different, knows how to investigate and follow the facts,” the former senior official said.

“It’s astonishing. There’s a lack of understanding of how we operate as an organization — one, to think that we could not have political views and conduct impartial investigations, and two, to assume with a complex investigation like this that one person could change the outcome.”

The handling of the Clinton email investigation is currently under review by the Justice Department inspector general, Michael Horowitz, a probe that Wray referred to on Thursday as “very active.”

Republicans on Capitol Hill have used the revelations about Strzok to suggest that Mueller has intentionally stacked his team with agents and prosecutors who have an axe to grind against Trump.

Strzok was one of the investigators who interviewed Trump’s then-national security adviser, Michael Flynn, in January — but the decision to question Flynn would not have originated with Strzok, former officials say.

“The question is, how did this guy get on your supposedly unbiased team in the first place, when you consider that this is the same guy that had a key position investigating the Hillary Clinton email server scandal and apparently had a hand in altering the FBI’s conclusion that Clinton was grossly negligent, down to ‘extremely careless,’ so she could escape prosecution and thus stay in the race against Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDems make history, and other takeaways from Tuesday's primaries Pawlenty loses comeback bid in Minnesota Establishment-backed Vukmir wins Wisconsin GOP Senate primary MORE,” Rep. Steve ChabotSteven (Steve) Joseph ChabotVulnerable Republicans include several up-and-coming GOP leaders Dems eyeing smaller magic number for House majority Conservative group pledges .5 million for 12 House GOP candidates MORE (R-Ohio) demanded of Wray at last week’s hearing.

Other GOP lawmakers have suggested bureau officials should be “monitored” for political bias.

Andrew Weissmann, another prominent member of Mueller’s team, has also come under fierce scrutiny on Capitol Hill.

Weissmann, who is considered to be an expert on “flipping” witnesses, praised former acting Attorney General Sally Yates for refusing to defend Trump’s controversial travel ban in January. 

The suggestion that officials should be screened for their political affiliations has alarmed some former officials, who say that while perhaps Strzok should have been more circumspect, expressing his opinions in a personal text message does not undermine the integrity of either the Russia or Clinton investigation.

“Are we now saying that whether a prosecutor or agent is qualified to work on a political-corruption case depends on his or her party affiliation or political convictions?” Andrew McCarthy, a self-avowed anti-Clinton former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, wrote in an op-ed in the conservative magazine National Review.

“If you’ve made up your mind that Peter Strzok is responsible for tanking the Hillary Clinton case, and that he was putting his thumb on Mueller’s scale against the Trump administration, you are way out ahead of what we actually know — and you’re probably wrong.”

There is nothing in the FBI guidelines that prevents agents from having or expressing a political opinion in their capacity as an individual, even publicly. Strzok’s messages were private — he sent them to another member of Mueller’s team, Lisa Page, with whom he was reportedly having an extramarital affair.

But while former officials defend Strzok’s professional objectivity, some argue that Mueller made the right decision to reassign him away from the politically charged Russia probe.

“Perception becomes reality, particularly in a case like this,” the former senior official said. “And the investigation is bigger than any one agent.”