WASHINGTON (CN) - Facing outrage over an FBI agent’s disparaging text messages about the president, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein assured members of Congress on Wednesday that personal politics do not sway investigations.
Rosenstein’s four-hour appearance this morning before the House Judiciary Committee came a week after a government audit brought to light communications between FBI agent Peter Strzok and senior FBI attorney Lisa Page.
In one message, Strzok called President Donald Trump a “idiot." Another said: "Hillary should win 100 million to 0."
Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz uncovered the text messages as part of a broad investigation of the FBI's handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe and its investigation of possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Strzok had reportedly been the FBI’s second-ranking counterintelligence official but Horowitz’s findings led Special Counsel Robert Mueller to jettison the agent from his probe of Russian influence on the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
While Democrats see Mueller’s swift action here as enough to restore order, Republicans in Congress view Strzok as an example of a larger bias.
Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, used Wednesday's hearing for example to rattle off a list of campaign contributions several members of Mueller's team have made to Democratic candidates, including President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Chabot then asked Rosenstein if he could say with a straight face that the team is unbiased.
Rosenstein answered by saying he sees it as his duty to ensure that federal investigations remain untouched by any political opinions held by Justice Department employees. While the government cannot keep employees from having opinions, he said it can ensure that that no opinion factors into how employees conduct themselves on the job.
Luke Hunt, a former FBI agent, offered some insight to Wednesday’s testimony in an email interview, noting that high-profile investigations face significant oversight that makes it difficult for one agent's political opinions to have undue influence.
"To put it another way, no FBI agent is an island,” Hunt said. “There’s no doubt that it looks bad to see an FBI agent's political views and donations on display, but at the end of the day the most important thing is an investigation's evidence. Personal opinions do not alter the facts and evidence uncovered by an investigation."
Hunt, who now teaches criminal justice at Radford University, said he worked with both Republicans and Democrats at the bureau.
"We occasionally discussed our views around the water cooler,” Hunt said. “This never struck me as unusual or improper, and I never witnessed an agent's political opinions impact an investigation.”
Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, argued to the contrary at Wednesday’s hearing. After reading aloud some of the 375 Strzok communications that the Department of Justice shared with the House Judiciary Committee, Gohmert said the messages show deep bias.
"This is not just political opinions," Gohnert said. "This is disgusting, unaccountable bias. And there's no way that could not affect a person's work."
Rosenstein demurred when asked whether he was aware of Strzok’s bias.
“No, I was not,” said Rosenstein.
Ranking member Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., noted that he read the 375 messages as well.
Noting that nothing in FBI policy bars agents from expressing private political views in private communications, Nadler said he found little reason for concern.
"First, Peter Strzok did not say anything about Donald Trump that the majority of Americans weren't also thinking at the same time," Nadler said. "And second, in a testament to his integrity and situational awareness, when the Office of the Inspector General made Mr. Mueller aware of these exchanges, he immediately removed Mr. Strzok from his team.”
It was Rosenstein who appointed Mueller to the office of special counsel when Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. The deputy attorney general spoke highly of the special counsel at Wednesday’s hearing, pointing to Mueller’s experience and support among both Republican and Democratic administrations.
"I think it would be very difficult, Congressman, for anybody to find somebody better qualified for this job," Rosenstein said, responding to Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., about why he hired Mueller. "Director Mueller has, throughout his lifetime, been a dedicated, and respected and heroic public servant."
Rep. Gohmert claimed meanwhile to have disliked the special counsel since Mueller’s days leading the FBI during the administration of former President George W. Bush.
Rosenstein said on several occasions Wednesday that there is no good cause to remove Mueller from his post.
While he refused to answer questions about the details of Mueller's investigation, Rosenstein indicated that he is aware of all its facets. He said several times that he would take prompt action if anything improper occurs, and will take appropriate action based on the results of the inspector general’s investigation.
The FBI declined to comment on Strzok’s text messages, but a spokesman said in an email that, when it comes to personal political opinions, FBI agents are subject only to the Hatch Act and a regulation outlining political activities of federal employees.
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