Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the investigation into whether President Trump's team assisted Russian meddling in last year's campaign, pushed back strongly Wednesday against Republican accusations that the probe is infected with partisan bias and steadfastly defended special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
"The special counsel's investigation is not a witch hunt," Rosenstein told a heated House Judiciary Committee hearing, specifically rejecting the phrase that President Trump has used to denounce the case. He said Mueller has managed the case "appropriately."
Rosenstein also said he would not fire Mueller unless the former FBI director had violated Justice Department guidelines or the law. "If there were good cause, I would act," he said. "If there were no good cause, I would not."
Rosenstein's testimony served as a sharp rebuke to Republicans who have questioned the political independence and probity of Mueller's team of prosecutors. His message bolstered Democrats who fear the president will try to fire Mueller to short-circuit a probe that already has resulted in criminal charges against four former Trump campaign aides.
As the second-ranking official in the Justice Department, Rosenstein oversees the Russia investigation because Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions recused himself in March after his undisclosed contacts with the Russian ambassador were revealed.
Rosenstein chose Mueller as special counsel in May after Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey, who was heading the case. Mueller could not be fired without Rosenstein's cooperation.
Rosenstein's staunch defense of Mueller comes as the high-profile investigation appears to have reached a critical point.
Mueller recently secured a guilty plea from Michael Flynn, a senior Trump campaign aide who later served 24 days as White House national security advisor. Flynn promised to cooperate with prosecutors, a sign that Mueller could ensnare other prominent Trump aides or associates.
The plea deal added to the drumbeat of criminal charges that have rattled the White House. Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and his deputy, Richard Gates, were indicted in October, while a former low-level foreign policy campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.
At the same time, Republicans have ramped up their efforts to discredit Mueller's investigation, assembling what they describe as a mountain of evidence to question his credibility.
"I think the public trust in this whole thing is gone," Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said Wednesday.
Republicans repeatedly pressed Rosenstein about private text messages that two FBI employees, agent Peter Strzok and lawyer Lisa Page, exchanged in 2015 and 2016. Both worked for the special counsel this year, although neither recently.
The messages, which the Justice Department released Tuesday night, included references to Trump as an "idiot" and said, "This man can not be president." The pair also disparaged Sen. Bernie Sanders, who was seeking the Democratic nomination, and other politicians.
Page already had left Mueller's team when the text messages were uncovered in July. Mueller removed Strzok at that point, but Republicans on the committee suggested that Strzok's former role undermined the integrity of the entire probe.
"How much of this whole investigation has been infected with his bias?" Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) asked.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the committee, downplayed the GOP complaints about the private text messages.
"Peter Strzok did not say anything about Donald Trump that the majority of Americans weren't also thinking at the same time," he said.
Nadler said Mueller's decision to remove Strzok from his team was "a testament to his integrity and situational awareness."
The House committee has been a focal point for Republican efforts to suggest Mueller's team of prosecutors has Democratic leanings and thus is biased against the president.
"Investigations must not be tainted by individuals imposing their own political prejudices," said Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.), who chairs the committee. "We are now beginning to better understand the magnitude of this insider bias on Mr. Mueller's team."
Republicans cited praise from Andrew Weissmann, a top prosecutor in the special counsel's office, for Sally Yates, who as acting attorney general refused to defend Trump's order to restrict travel from Muslim-majority countries. And they pointed to donations to Democratic politicians, including Hillary Clinton's campaign, from several members of Mueller's team.
"How with a straight face can you say this group of Democratic partisans is unbiased and will give President Trump a fair shake?" asked Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio).
It's not against Justice Department rules for employees to express political opinions or contribute to candidates.
Democrats said they're concerned that Republican criticism of Mueller could be used as a pretext for Trump to remove him, and they urged Rosenstein to maintain the independence of his department.
"The very future of our democracy is at stake if you fail to do that," Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) said.
White House lawyer Ty Cobb denied Tuesday that the president plans to get rid of Mueller. "There are no plans, as we've said for months on end, to fire Mr. Mueller," he said.
12:45 p.m.: This article was updated with additional comments from the hearing.
8:10 a.m.: This article was updated with details from the House Judiciary Committee hearing.