Following President Trump's questionable lead, some congressional Republicans are trying to sow doubt about the integrity and impartiality of the FBI and the investigation led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. That investigation already has resulted in an indictment of Trump's former campaign chairman and a guilty plea by his first national security advisor, and it shows no sign of concluding.
On Thursday, four days after Trump tweeted that the FBI's reputation was "in tatters," Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told FBI Director Christopher A. Wray: "We cannot afford for the FBI — which has traditionally been dubbed the premier law enforcement agency in the world — to become tainted by politicization or the perception of a lack of even-handedness."
True enough, but the question is whether such a perception is fair or the result of politically motivated exaggeration by the president and his supporters. So far the evidence points strongly in the latter direction. That comes as no surprise — the attacks on the FBI fit a clear pattern of misdirection and deflection by the Trump administration and its GOP allies on the issue of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Take the incident that Republicans are treating as a "smoking gun": the fact that an FBI agent named Peter Strzok was reassigned from Mueller's investigation earlier this year after it was discovered that he had sent personal text messages critical of Trump to another FBI official.
Strzok also was involved in the investigation of Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server for State Department business, and some Republicans speculate that he softened the FBI's conclusion about Clinton's culpability. Trump has made a similar accusation. On Sunday he tweeted: "Report: "ANTI-TRUMP FBI AGENT LED CLINTON EMAIL PROBE" Now it all starts to make sense!" Their claim isn't supported by any evidence, however, just their deep, abiding belief that Clinton should not have been let off the hook.
Wray, testifying before the Judiciary Committee, declined to comment in detail about Strzok because of a current investigation by the Justice Department's inspector general. In general, he told the committee, "we will hold our folks accountable, if that's appropriate."
Even if Strzok didn't violate any Justice Department regulation, expressing political opinions may have been indiscreet in light of the sensitivity of the investigation. The fact that Strzok was transferred suggests that his supervisors recognized that there was an appearance problem. But at this point, no one has presented even a shred of evidence that Strzok was influenced by his political beliefs in the way he performed his duties, either as part of the Mueller investigation or in connection with the Clinton email inquiry.
Although it may be impossible to satisfy Republicans on these issues, it's appropriate for the inspector general to investigate not only Strzok's conduct but the Clinton email investigation as a whole, including decisions made by former FBI Director James B. Comey to discuss publicly his unusual decision not to recommend that Clinton face criminal charges. What isn't needed is a special counsel to reexamine the Clinton investigation, as some Republicans are demanding. Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein — whom Trump put in office — is perfectly capable of deciding whether there is any reason to revisit the Clinton case.
The larger context here is that ever since Mueller was appointed, there has been an effort by the president and his allies to discredit the special counsel's investigation — for example, by pointing to the fact that some lawyers on his staff made political contributions to Clinton or other Democrats. There also have been attempts by the president's allies to change the subject, such as the claim that the real scandal was improper "unmasking" of members of the Trump transition team whose communications with foreign governments were intercepted by U.S. intelligence. The unmasking allegations have proved to be a non-scandal too.
Finally, while the president's lawyers insist that he wants to cooperate with Mueller, Trump might be tempted to enact his own version of Richard Nixon's Saturday Night Massacre — firing Mueller and any Justice Department official who gets in the way — if he thought Republicans in Congress would go along. They shouldn't give him that opening by casting aspersions on the professionalism of the FBI.