Robert Mueller’s Russia inquiry is no witch-hunt, says deputy attorney general

Deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein defended special counsel Robert Mueller on Wednesday and said he had seen no cause to fire him or received encouragement to do so.

He also rejected Donald Trump’s characterization of the special counsel’s investigation as a witch-hunt.

Rosenstein appeared before the House judiciary committee a day after the Justice Department provided congressional committees with hundreds of text messages between an FBI agent assigned to Mueller’s team and an FBI lawyer who was on the same detail.

Robert S Mueller III, 73, is a former FBI director who was appointed by George W Bush and held over by Barack Obama beyond his 10-year term. The term extension required special congressional action which the Senate approved 100-0. Previously, Mueller held two different US attorney posts and was an assistant attorney general in the George HW Bush administration.

Special counsel

Mueller was appointed special counsel in May 2017, eight days after Trump fired FBI director James Comey. A special counsel is a prosecutor appointed in extraordinary circumstances or in cases of conflicts of interest within the justice department. In this case, there was a need for someone to investigate the Russian matter who was not appointed by or beholden to Trump.

Mueller’s team of 17 lawyers operates independently of, but (ideally) in cooperation with, Congress, which has three committees conducting investigations in parallel to Mueller. Mueller is expected to submit a report to Congress and may bring criminal charges separately.

Mueller has a sizeable budget and an open-ended term. He is specifically authorized to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump” plus any matters that “may arise directly from the investigation”. He has the power to prosecute federal crimes.

Can he be replaced?

Mueller was appointed by deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, with attorney general Jeff Sessions having earlier recused himself from the Russia investigation. In theory, only Rosenstein may remove Mueller, although if Trump wanted to fire Mueller, and Rosenstein were unwilling, Trump could replace Rosenstein.

Trump’s view

Trump has said Mueller “is very, very good friends with James Comey, which is very bothersome” but also said “Robert Mueller is an honorable man.”

Those messages, which occurred before Mueller was appointed in May, show the officials using words like “idiot” and “loathsome human” to characterize Trump as he was running for president in 2016. One of the officials said in an election night text that the prospect of a Trump victory was “terrifying.”

The disclosures of the text messages added to concerns among members of Congress that Mueller’s team is tainted by political bias.

But when Rosenstein was asked if he had seen good cause to fire Mueller, whom he appointed and whose work he oversees, he replied that he had not.

Rosenstein also defended the credentials of Mueller, a former FBI director, and said he was an appropriate choice to run the justice department’s Russia investigation after the firing of FBI director James Comey.

“The special counsel’s investigation is not a witch-hunt,” Rosenstein said.

“The independence and integrity of the investigation are not going to be affected by anything that anyone says.”

Peter Strzok, a veteran FBI counter-intelligence agent, was removed from Mueller’s team following the discovery of text messages exchanged with Lisa Page, an FBI lawyer who was also detailed this year to the group of agents and prosecutors investigating potential coordination between Russia and Trump’s Republican campaign.

“When we have evidence of any inappropriate conduct, we’re going to take action on it. That’s what Mr Mueller did here. As soon as he learned about this issue, he took action,” Rosenstein said.

Rosenstein acknowledged in response to Democratic questioning that reporters were invited to theDoJ to review the messages – which was unusual given that they part of an watchdog report – but said that decision was acceptable because the information was determined to be “appropriate for public release.”

“Our goal, congressman, is to make sure it’s clear to you we are not concealing anything that is embarrassing to the FBI,” he said.

Although the hearing’s primary focus remained the FBI investigation into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow, some lawmakers seized the opportunity to raise other matters.

What are the dangers for Trump from the Russia investigations?

The 2020 election

The most likely price Trump would pay, if he were perceived guilty of wrongdoing, would be a 2020 re-election loss. He can’t afford to lose many supporters and expect to remain in office. Any disillusionment stemming from the Russian affair could make the difference. His average approval rating has hung in the mid-to-upper 30s. Every president to win re-election since the second world war did so with an approval rating in the 49%-50% range or better.

As long as Republicans are in charge, Trump is not likely to face impeachment proceedings or to be removed from office. A two-thirds majority in the Senate is required to remove a president from office through impeachment.

Public opinion

If public opinion swings precipitously against the president, however, his grip on power could slip. At some point, Republicans in Congress may, if their constituents will it, turn on Trump.

Criminal charges

Apart from impeachment, Trump could, perhaps, face criminal charges, which would (theoretically) play out in the court system as opposed to Congress. But it’s a matter of debate among scholars and prosecutors whether Trump, as a sitting president, may be prosecuted in this way.

Robert Mueller is believed to have Trump’s tax returns, and to be looking at the Trump Organization as well as Jared Kushner’s real estate company. It’s possible that wrongdoing unrelated to the election could be uncovered and make trouble for Trump. The president, and Kushner, deny wrongdoing.

Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat from Illinois, brought up the sexual assault allegations against Trump by as many as 17 women. Reading aloud accounts from some of the women – a handful of whom came forward again this week to say Trump had groped and kissed them without consent – Gutierrez asked Rosenstein if such behavior would warrant an arrest if it took place in a public space.

Rosenstein dodged the question, saying he was focused on oversight of the DoJ. But he invited Gutierrez to submit evidence for the department’s review.

“If you believe there’s a federal crime, the department will review it,” Rosenstein said. “That applies to any alleged violation by any person, and that’s all I have to say.”

Rosenstein said it “wouldn’t be appropriate” for him to weigh in further.

The existence of the text messages, disclosed in news reports earlier this month, provided a line of attack for Trump. Republicans have seized on the exchange of texts between two officials who worked for Mueller to suggest that the team is biased against Trump and its conclusions can’t be trusted.

Strzok had been deeply involved in the FBI’s inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and was in the room when Clinton was interviewed by the FBI. He later helped investigate whether the Trump campaign worked with Russia to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

The texts seen by the AP began in the summer of 2015, soon after the FBI launched its email server investigation, and continued over the next year and a half as the presidential race was in full swing and as Trump and Clinton were looking to defeat their primary challengers and head toward the general election.

The messages – 375 were released Tuesday evening – cover a broad range of political topics and include an exchange of news articles about the race, often alongside their own commentaries.

There are some derogatory comments about Democratic officials, including presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and former attorney general Eric Holder, but some of the harshest comments are reserved for Trump.

In a March 4, 2016, back-and-forth provided to Congress, Page refers to Trump as a “loathsome human” and Strzok responds, “Yet he may win.” After Strzok asks whether she thinks Trump would be a worse president than fellow Republican Ted Cruz, Page says, “Yes, I think so.”

The two then use words like “idiot” and “awful” to characterize Trump, with Strzok saying, “America will get what the voting public deserves.”

In another exchange, on 18 October, Strzok writes to Page and says: “I am riled up. Trump is an expletive idiot, is unable to provide a coherent answer. I CAN’T PULL AWAY. WHAT THE expletive HAPPENED TO OUR COUNTRY??!?!”

Weeks later, on election day, as it seemed to become clearer that Trump could defeat Clinton, he says, “OMG THIS IS expletive TERRIFYING: A victory by Mr. Trump remains possible…”

Page replies, “Yeah, that’s not good.”

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