Rosenstein on hot seat as parties allege FBI bias

Rosenstein on hot seat as parties allege FBI bias
© Greg Nash

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein will be on the hot seat Wednesday over alleged political bias in the Justice Department — and in a twist, he’ll be hearing it from both sides of the aisle.

Rosenstein is slated to testify before the House Judiciary Committee’s oversight panel at a time when both Republicans and Democrats are insisting that the personal leanings of FBI personnel have unfairly tilted the investigations into Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Krystal Ball credits Gabbard's upswing in 2020 race to 'feckless' Democratic establishment Outsider candidates outpoll insider candidates MORE’s email server and the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.

Judiciary Chairman Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteUSCIS chief Cuccinelli blames Paul Ryan for immigration inaction Immigrant advocacy groups shouldn't be opposing Trump's raids Top Republican releases full transcript of Bruce Ohr interview MORE (R-Va.) has said he is “troubled” by the staff assigned to special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, citing a senior intelligence agent, Peter Strzok, who was reassigned from Mueller’s team for sending allegedly anti-Trump texts.

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Meanwhile, the top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), is demanding that the Justice Department turn over documents that he says could reveal “politically-motivated misconduct” at the bureau designed to damage Clinton in the election — including alleged leaks to media organizations.

 

Rosenstein is the senior Justice Department official in charge of the Russia probe due to Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsMedill dean 'deeply troubled by the vicious bullying and badgering' of student journalists Trump has considered firing official who reported whistleblower complaint to Congress: report Northwestern student paper apologizes for coverage of 'traumatic' Jeff Sessions event MORE recusing himself. After taking over the investigation, Rosenstein appointed Mueller as special counsel.

Goodlatte and other Republicans are calling for the appointment of a second special counsel to investigate the handling of the FBI’s decisionmaking in the Clinton probe — and Rosenstein will likely face pressure on that point on Wednesday. 

Republicans have long argued that Clinton received kid-glove treatment from the Obama Justice Department, and now are using reports of the reassigned intelligence agent to argue that the investigation into Russia’s election meddling is a politically motivated “witch hunt” against President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump faces high stakes in meeting with Erdoğan amid impeachment drama Democrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Trump threatening to fire Mulvaney: report MORE

According to one report, Strzok was behind then-FBI Director James Comey’s decision to call Clinton “extremely careless” in her handling of classified information, rather than “grossly negligent.” The change was significant, as gross negligence could potentially open Clinton up to criminal charges.

But former bureau officials dispute the notion that Strzok would have had that kind of influence. One former senior official at the FBI who oversaw national security matters told The Hill that more than a dozen officials weighed in on the language to be used in Comey’s July 2016 remarks.

Yet the revelation has added new fuel to conservative claims that Mueller has intentionally stacked his team with pro-Clinton agents and prosecutors.

“The question is, how did this guy get on your supposed unbiased team in the first place, when you consider this is the same guy 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 Trump?” Rep. Steve ChabotSteven (Steve) Joseph ChabotBottom Line Consequential GOP class of 1994 all but disappears Judiciary approves new investigative powers with eyes on impeachment MORE (R-Ohio) asked during an oversight hearing with FBI Director Christopher Wray last week.

Republicans have also questioned the motives of Andrew Weissmann, another prosecutor on Mueller’s team, who sent an email praising former acting Attorney General Sally Yates for refusing to defend President Trump’s travel ban in January.

While Rosenstein has said in recent days that he is satisfied with the work of the special counsel thus far — Mueller has turned over two guilty pleas and handed down a pair of indictments of former Trump campaign officials — it’s unclear how much detail he will be able to offer about the investigation in a public setting.

Democrats have begun to turn claims of institutional bias back against the GOP, with Nadler and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee ranking member Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsBrindisi, Lamb recommended for Armed Services, Transportation Committees Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, Elijah Cummings's widow, will run for his House seat Former NAACP president to run for Cummings's House seat MORE (D-Md.) calling on Rosenstein to turn over any evidence of “political bias or personal animus” against Clinton. 

In a letter sent to Sessions and Rosenstein on Monday, the two lawmakers zeroed in on whether articles published on the “fringe conspiracy website True Pundit” — which claimed to be sourced from within the government — might have influenced the decision to reopen the Clinton investigation just 11 days before the election.

The website published multiple stories last year which claimed that Clinton had not been charged because senior officials within the U.S. government supported her bid for the White House. 

The hearing Wednesday follows a five-hour appearance by Wray last week, during which he issued an unequivocal defense of the FBI’s workforce.

Wray acknowledged that the bureau makes mistakes “like everybody who’s human,” but said the bureau holds individuals accountable when mistakes are made.

But 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.

“There is no shortage of opinions out there,” Wray said.