The new target of right-wing rage: Veteran employees at the FBI and Justice Department
The tone of the ad is ominous, a familiar conservative warning about a looming threat to American freedom. But instead of President Obama or a foreign adversary, the target is a veteran federal prosecutor appointed by President Trump.
“Rod Rosenstein – a weak careerist at the Justice Department,” says the digital ad about the deputy attorney general. “Protecting liberal Obama holdovers and the deep state instead of following the rule of law.”
The ad says Rosenstein should “do his job – or resign.”
The ad, by a wing of the Tea Party Patriots group, is part of a growing wave of conservative attacks on the Justice Department and the FBI – following the lead of the president himself, who has repeatedly belittled or questioned the motives and competence of the nation’s top intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
The hard-right wing of the Republican Party is expressing its rage even as Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions pursues a traditionally conservative agenda of harsher prison sentences and tougher approaches to illegal immigration.
The criticism rose sharply after House Republicans released a memo Friday that alleged Rosenstein and other senior FBI and Justice Department officials had repeatedly misinformed a secretive court to eavesdrop on a former Trump aide in 2016. The FBI said the memo was inaccurate.
In perhaps the most extreme response, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) declared that the memo showed “clear and convincing evidence of treason” and urged Sessions to prosecute “these traitors to our nation.” Under the Constitution, treason is punishable by death.
Trump has fumed in private and in public at the special counsel investigation led by Robert S. Mueller III, which Rosenstein oversees, into whether Trump or his aides cooperated with a Russian plot to influence the 2016 election, or obstructed justice after taking office.
Trump has railed at Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation, has tweeted bitter personal jibes at former FBI Director James B. Comey (whom Trump fired), former acting Atty. Gen. Sally Yates (also fired), and Andrew McCabe, who stepped down as deputy director of the FBI.
Claims that Trump was under siege by a “deep state” conspiracy of FBI agents and others loyal to Hillary Clinton took off after the release of cellphone text messages between FBI agent Peter Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page, who were lovers, that showed them expressing horror at the prospect of Trump’s election.
Strzok, who had worked on the Clinton email investigation, was removed from the Mueller probe in the summer after an inspector general uncovered the texts. But the romantic couple’s supposed malign role escalated this week when Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said a newly released Page text about Obama from September 2016 “may relate” to the Clinton probe.
Analysts said the brief text – “[the president] wants to know everything we’re doing” - almost certainly referred to preparations for Obama’s planned meeting that week with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But conservative commentators seized on the FBI texts as proof of wrongdoing, and Trump tweeted Wednesday that they “are bombshells!”
Much of the right-wing anger has settled on Rosenstein, a Republican who spent 12 years as U.S. attorney in Baltimore, building a solid, uncontroversial reputation as a by-the-books federal prosecutor who poured resources into combating violent crime.
Appointed by Trump to the No. 2 position in the Justice Department, and confirmed by a Senate vote of 94-6, Rosenstein took over the Russia investigation in March when Sessions stepped aside due to questions about his own meetings with a Russian diplomat during the campaign.
After Trump abruptly fired Comey in May, Rosenstein appointed Mueller as special counsel. Since then, Mueller has filed criminal charges against four former Trump aides; two have pleaded guilty, including Trump’s former national security advisor, Michael Flynn.
Under Justice Department regulations, Rosenstein has control of the Mueller probe. He can set the budget, determine what Mueller can or can’t pursue and, perhaps most importantly, decide whether to make public any final reports. Rosenstein also is the only official empowered to fire Mueller, and has told Congress he would not follow an order to do so without good cause.
Trump likely would face a firestorm of criticism if he sought to fire Mueller. But firing Rosenstein, Mueller’s boss, could open the way to naming a more compliant deputy attorney general, one who might rein in Mueller’s probe.
Sean Hannity, the Fox News commentator who has been a cheerleader for Trump, has repeatedly called for Rosenstein to resign or be fired. Senate Democrats have warned Trump not to do so, but the president has refused to provide assurances. “You figure that one out,” he told reporters last week.
Jenny Beth Martin, a co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, said the Rosenstein ad was produced by a spinoff nonprofit group that spent $100,000 on digital placements. The group does not have to disclose its donors; Martin said most of the money came from small donors reached in a mail campaign.
Under Obama, the tea party group crusaded against Obamacare and for lower taxes. With Republicans now in control of the White House and Congress, Martin said the group is targeting what she called a lack of accountability by career officials like Rosenstein.
Asked precisely what Rosenstein has done wrong, she said only that he was slow to provide some requested documents to Congress.
The swirling accusations of bad faith and political bias inside the FBI and Justice Department have angered and bewildered some current and former FBI agents and prosecutors. The say the harsh rhetoric from Trump and his allies is sapping the morale of employees and public respect for the bureau.
“We have really fallen way far down the rabbit hole, that’s for sure,” said Frank Montoya Jr., a former FBI agent who headed counterintelligence operations at the bureau.
“Internally, there’s a lot of people who are freaking upset, and disappointed,” he said. “They think that they are being unrighteously dragged through the political slime field, and we are.”
He added, “The president keeps sucker-punching us.”
Former Atty. Gen. Eric Holder, who served from 2009 to 2015 under Obama, said Trump’s complaints and attacks break the traditional wall between the Justice Department and the White House. He said the drumbeat of criticism won’t rattle Mueller, but it might make a difference when a jury considers testimony from an FBI agent in an ordinary criminal trial.
The criticism will “raise doubts in the minds of people as they listen to that FBI agent and what she says in a way they never did before,” he told reporters. “The long-term negative collateral consequences are substantial, they’re real, and I hope the president would pull back.”
FBI Director Christopher Wray, whom Trump chose to replace Comey, has avoided directly confronting Trump. But after the House memo was released, he put out an internal video to FBI employees telling them to stand tough amid the political bickering.
“Talk is cheap,” he said. “The work you do is what will endure.”
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