President Donald Trump frequently paints the Russia investigation as a politically-motivated “witch hunt” meant to delegitimize his victory.
- President Donald Trump said Thursday that the FBI agent whom special counsel Robert Mueller ousted last July committed “treason” by exchanging politically-charged texts with an FBI colleague.
- Counterintelligence veteran Peter Strzok was removed from Mueller's team after he expressed anti-Trump sentiment in texts he sent to FBI lawyer Lisa Page.
- Trump and his allies latched onto the revelations last year to paint Mueller's investigation and the FBI as biased against him.
President Donald Trump said during an interview with The Wall Street Journal on Thursday that Peter Strzok, the FBI counterintelligence agent who was ousted from special counsel Robert Mueller's team last July, committed treason.
“A man is tweeting to his lover that if [former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton] loses, we'll essentially do the insurance policy,” Trump said. “We'll go to phase two and we'll get this guy out of office.”
“This is the FBI we're talking about — that is treason,” he continued. “That is a treasonous act. What he tweeted to his lover is a treasonous act.”
The Washington Post reported in December that while Strzok was working on the FBI's investigation into Clinton's use of a private email server to conduct government business, he exchanged texts expressing anti-Trump sentiment with an FBI lawyer, Lisa Page, with whom The Post said he was engaging in an extramarital affair. At the time, Page worked for Deputy Director Andrew McCabe.
Page and Strzok reportedly continued exchanging politically charged texts throughout the 2016 campaign season. In one text, sent in August 2016, Strzok wrote, “I want to believe the path you threw out for consideration…that there's no way [Trump] gets elected—but I'm afraid we can't take that risk. It's like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you're 40.”
The Journal reported in December that the “insurance policy” Strzok mentioned was in reference to his belief that the FBI needed to continue digging into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow to tilt the election in his favor.
Strzok was removed from Mueller's team after it emerged that he had exchanged the texts about Clinton and Trump with Page, and the inspector general is now examining the messages for any evidence of bias.
ABC News first reported Strzok's ouster in August, but it was unclear at the time why he was removed from the special counsel's team. The report said that Strzok had stepped away from the probe and had begun working at the FBI's human-resources division.
News of the Strzok-Page texts prompted immediate and sustained outrage from Trump and his allies, many of whom believe the Russia investigation is a politically motivated “witch hunt” meant to delegitimize Trump's election victory.
“Mueller's stooges are literally doing everything within their power and then some to try and remove President Trump from office,” Fox News commentator and ardent Trump supporter Sean Hannity told his 3 million viewers.
On Hannity's show in December, Fox News legal analyst Gregg Jarrett called Mueller's investigation “illegitimate and corrupt,” and accused the special counsel of using the FBI as a political weapon and acting as “America's secret police.”
Trump threw in his two cents as well, saying the FBI's reputation was in “tatters” and the “worst in history.”
Former federal prosecutors and FBI agents agreed that investigators should be careful about expressing their personal views while working on politically charged cases, but they pushed back on the claims of bias on Mueller's team from Trump's allies.
Joseph Pelcher, a former FBI counterintelligence operative who was stationed in Russia and specialized in organized crime, said that while agents should be careful about openly expressing their opinions, “there is certainly nothing wrong with holding political views as long as it doesn't interfere with an investigation.”
LaRae Quy, who served as a covert operative at the FBI for 24 years, largely echoed that point.
“It's very important for agents to appear (and be) apolitical. I know that's 'pie in the sky' since we all have political views,” she said. “But the non-partisan aspect of an agent's job is important.”
That said, “agents are allowed to express their personal opinions … and encouraged to vote and be responsible citizens,” Quy said. “Almost every agent I know votes and upholds the democratic process. They are just smart enough to keep their mouth shut and their minds open.”