Democrats defend FBI, Mueller probe as GOP suspicions grow

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., speaks to Sinclair Broadcast Group on Capitol Hill on Jan. 24, 2018. (SBG)

As congressional Republicans and President Donald Trump cite text messages and classified documents to suggest top FBI officials were involved in a secret plot to undermine him, Democrats are pushing back against efforts to besmirch the reputation of those investigating possible ties between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government.

Two recent developments have added fuel to the already-inflammatory allegations directed at FBI leadership and Robert Mueller, the former FBI director serving as special counsel for the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.

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Republican staff working for Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, have compiled a four-page memo detailing alleged abuses of surveillance powers and other misconduct by FBI and Department of Justice officials who opposed President Trump. The document remains classified, but committee Republicans voted to share it with other House members.

GOP lawmakers who have seen the memo have called the behavior of law enforcement officials outrageous and terrifying, and they have called for it to be declassified. President Trump reportedly supports declassifying the memo if the GOP majority in the House votes to do so.

Lawmakers have also received hundreds of new pages of text messages exchanged between FBI official Peter Strzok and DOJ lawyer Lisa Page, both of whom briefly worked with Mueller’s team and were reportedly having an affair.

Previous texts between the two have been used by Republicans as evidence that agents working on investigations of Trump and his 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, were biased and were scheming against Trump. The new texts apparently include references to forming a “secret society” after Trump was elected.

The new records also reveal that there is a gap in the messages the FBI has recovered from December 2016 to May 2017. Though the FBI blamed that omission on a technical glitch, Republicans have demanded further explanation.

Democrats have emphasized that the texts between Strzok and Page are being taken out of context and they have accused Republicans of attempting to distract the public and preemptively undermine Mueller’s findings.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was troubled by what he sees as a concerted effort to discredit the FBI by allies of the president.

“What I can tell you is what Mr. Nunes is doing, I don’t even know a precedent for something like this,” he said. “It looks partisan.”

Wyden noted that he has fought firmly against the FBI in the past when he believed the bureau was deserving of criticism without questioning agents’ integrity, such as when he opposed efforts by law enforcement to weaken encryption on consumer products.

“I’ve had disagreements with Bob Mueller and the FBI on that,” he said, “but that doesn’t diminish my view that they are working in a very professional way on a host of matters that are extremely important to the integrity of our country, to the safety of our country.”

Wyden suggested the attacks on Mueller and top FBI officials are short-sighted and risk long-term damage to the country’s top law enforcement agency.

“I think the cumulative effect of what Mr. Nunes is trying to do is going to harm the Mueller investigation, harm the FBI,” he said.

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, acknowledged that FBI agents cannot be expected to be devoid of opinions on political matters.

“Everybody’s a human being,” said Risch, also a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Everybody comes to all of this stuff with a view of left, right or maybe on a specific issue.”

However, he added that when officials have strong feelings on issues and candidates—as the texts and other evidence suggest—they must ensure that those views do not influence their work, even if that means recusing themselves from a case.

“It cannot happen,” he said. “People who are in a position where they’re dispensing justice or trying to pursue justice, if they have those kinds of views, they should disqualify themselves.”

Due to the classified nature of the investigation, neither Wyden nor Risch would discuss the substance of the allegations the president and other lawmakers have made.

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., called the FBI a “great institution” but he believes there are some “rogue agents” among its ranks.

“You’re going to have some people with agendas that are not good for America,” he said. “They’re going to have their biases and prejudices there and that needs to be rooted out.”

The Department of Justice Inspector General’s Office is already looking into these issues and others, and that probe is what led to the discovery of the texts in the first place. Shelby said an outside investigation is warranted, particularly considering the loss of Strzok and Page’s text messages from a key period in the case.

“When they have missing emails and things like that that are very relevant to what went on or didn’t go on, something’s wrong, I believe,” he said. “I would be very suspicious.”

Republicans have rejected allegations that their attacks on FBI officials and Mueller’s investigation are driven purely by partisanship.

“This is not party politics,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the Freedom Caucus, in a series of tweets on Tuesday night laying out why he believes the FBI has some explaining to do about “the so-called ‘Russian-collusion’ investigation.” “This is not partisan bickering. This is an issue that gets at the very heart of who we are as a nation. If any officials at the FBI were engaged in this kind of behavior, we need to know.”

However, Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee who have seen the memo and the underlying intelligence have warned that it is not an accurate representation of the facts.

“It is so pathetically, obviously full of misstatements and lies," said Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., on CNN Wednesday.

According to Wyden, accusations being thrown at the independent investigation of Russian attempts to influence the election that Trump won threaten to spark a bigger conflict between the branches of government.

“These attacks which are apparently designed mostly to derail the Mueller investigation, I think are very much contrary to the public interest,” Wyden said. “For those who interfere with Bob Mueller’s work, they should realize they will be triggering a constitutional crisis.”

For Risch, though, the possibility that FBI agents were driven by political bias and misused their surveillance authority for partisan purposes merits serious scrutiny.

“It’s always a concern and the American people need constant vigilance on their government officials to see that certain invasions of privacy don’t happen,” he said.

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