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Rosenstein sees no cause to fire Mueller

Chris Strohm and Billy House
Bloomberg News

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said he sees no cause to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, as Republicans hit him with a barrage of questions about what they say is an anti-Trump bias at the FBI and Justice Department.

“I know what he’s doing,” Rosenstein said of Mueller at a hearing Wednesday of the House Judiciary Committee. “If I thought he was doing something inappropriate, I’d take action.” He later added, “Nobody has communicated to me a desire to remove Robert Mueller.”

Rosenstein also said a determination hasn’t been made to justify a second special counsel sought by Republicans who would investigate their assertions that Justice Department probes are skewed against President Donald Trump or review how the FBI handled its investigation last year into Democrat Hillary Clinton’s use of private emails.

Republicans used the hearing to set out a bill of particulars intended to raise doubts about the motives of those involved in Mueller’s probe into whether Trump or his associates colluded with Russia to meddle in last year’s election.

Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia was among Republicans urging appointment of a second special counsel.

Justice Department “investigations must not be tainted by individuals imposing their own political prejudices,” Goodlatte said in opening the hearing. “We are now beginning to understand the magnitude of this insider bias on Mr. Mueller’s team.”

Representative Jerry Nadler of New York, the Judiciary Committee’s top Democrat, denounced the Republican efforts to challenge the Russia inquiry, saying, “President Trump has engaged in a persistent and dangerous effort to discredit both the free press and the Department of Justice.”

Republicans have seized on the disclosure that a top FBI agent assigned to the investigation, Peter Strzok, sent anti-Trump texts in exchanges with another FBI official last summer. Goodlatte said Strzok called Trump an “idiot” and that the messages showed high-ranking FBI officials “were personally vested in the outcome of the election, and clearly let their strong political opinions cloud their professional judgment.”

In an opening statement, Rosenstein suggested he’d refuse to discuss some issues, saying that “we always seek to accommodate congressional oversight requests while protecting the integrity of investigations, preserving the department’s independence, and safeguarding sensitive information.”

That was underscored when Representative Lamar Smith of Texas asked whether the personal finances of Trump family members are under investigation by Mueller.

“We just don’t talk about what’s under investigation,” he said.

Read a QuickTake Q&A on Understanding the Trump-Russia Saga

Rosenstein couldn’t dodge pointed questions about the Russia investigation as easily as current FBI Director Christopher Wray and Attorney General Jeff Sessions did during recent hearings. That’s because Rosenstein appointed Mueller and is the only person with the power to fire him or stop parts of his investigation.

Rosenstein named Mueller to lead the investigation in May after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. Rosenstein had that authority after Sessions recused himself from the investigation because he was a senior adviser in Trump’s election campaign.

Several congressional committees have been looking into aspects of the Russian meddling, which U.S. intelligence agencies have found was intended to hurt Clinton and ultimately help Trump win. But initial efforts to produce consensus have largely dissolved amid partisan maneuvering. Only the Senate Intelligence Committee has managed to maintain a mostly bipartisan agenda.

On the Judiciary Committee, Republicans pushed Rosenstein to explain whether a dossier with unverified allegations against Trump, some of them salacious, was used as the sole justification to open the Russia investigation and obtain surveillance warrants under Comey, and whether officials now working for Mueller are politically biased against Trump, Jordan said.

Among the Republican complaints is that a senior Justice Department official, Bruce Ohr, had connections to the company that created the dossier, which was largely financed by Clinton’s campaign. Ohr was demoted last week.

Court papers made public on Tuesday confirmed that Ohr’s wife was paid by Fusion GPS, the opposition-research firm behind the anti-Trump dossier. In a federal court affidavit, Glenn Simpson, the firm’s founder, confirmed that he met with Ohr last year, at Ohr’s request, in November after the election.

Republican Steve Chabot of Ohio cited contributions to Democratic campaigns by nine members of Mueller’s staff, asking Rosenstein, “How with a straight face can you say this group of Democratic partisans are unbiased and will give President Trump a fair shake?”

Rosenstein replied that while “recognizing people have political views,” he and Mueller agreed those opinions must not be allowed to affect an investigation.

Trump too has seized on some of these questions, writing on Twitter that the FBI’s reputation is “in tatters.”

Committee Democrat Zoe Lofgren of California said before the hearing that Republican attacks on the FBI and Justice Department officials are “tawdry” and an effort to “pre-discredit evidence” from Mueller’s probe.

“It’s pretty apparent what they are trying to do," she said.

Some House Republicans and their Senate counterparts have said a second special counsel should investigate issues including Comey’s handling of the FBI investigation into Clinton’s use of private emails when she was secretary of state and a 2010 decision by the Obama administration that let Russia to buy a stake in U.S. uranium production.

Asked whether a second special counsel is needed, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters Tuesday, “If we are going to investigate things, let’s look at something where there’s some real evidence.” She said Trump “has great concern about some of the conduct that’s taken place.”

Rosenstein gave Mueller a broad mandate to investigate any links or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with Trump’s campaign, as well as any matters that may arise directly from the investigation.

To date, Mueller has indicted Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and another campaign aide, Rick Gates. The special counsel also secured a plea deal and cooperation agreement from Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn for lying to FBI agents about his contacts with Russians. A low-level foreign policy adviser to the campaign also pleaded guilty to lying to investigators.

Some Judiciary Committee Republicans dismissed the premise that they’re involved in a concerted effort to undermine Mueller or his investigation.

“I have defended Mueller from Day One, and you won’t find anything to the contrary,” Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, who also heads the House Oversight Committee and is a former prosecutor, said before the hearing.