Mueller’s Credibility Problem
The special counsel is stonewalling Congress and protecting the FBI.
Robert Mueller Photo: thew/epa-efe/rex/shutterstock/EPA/Shutterstock
The Editorial Board
Donald Trump is his own worst enemy, as his many ill-advised tweets on the weekend about Michael Flynn, the FBI and Robert Mueller’s Russia probe demonstrate. But that doesn’t mean that Mr. Mueller and the Federal Bureau of Investigation deserve a pass about their motives and methods, as new information raises troubling questions.
The Washington Post and the New York Times reported Saturday that a lead FBI investigator on the Mueller probe, Peter Strzok, was demoted this summer after it was discovered he’d sent anti- Trump texts to a mistress. As troubling, Mr. Mueller and the Justice Department kept this information from House investigators, despite Intelligence Committee subpoenas that would have exposed those texts. They also refused to answer questions about Mr. Strzok’s dismissal and refused to make him available for an interview.
The news about Mr. Strzok leaked only when the Justice Department concluded it couldn’t hold out any longer, and the stories were full of spin that praised Mr. Mueller for acting “swiftly” to remove the agent. Only after these stories ran did Justice agree on Saturday to make Mr. Strzok available to the House.
This is all the more notable because Mr. Strzok was a chief lieutenant to former FBI Director James Comey and played a lead role investigating alleged coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election. Mr. Mueller then gave him a top role in his special-counsel probe. And before all this Mr. Strzok led the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails and sat in on the interview she gave to the FBI shortly before Mr. Comey publicly exonerated her in violation of Justice Department practice.
Oh, and the woman with whom he supposedly exchanged anti-Trump texts, FBI lawyer Lisa Page, worked for both Mr. Mueller and deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe, who was accused of a conflict of interest in the Clinton probe when it came out that Clinton allies had donated to the political campaign of Mr.
McCabe’s wife. The texts haven’t been publicly released, but it’s fair to assume their anti-Trump bias must be clear for Mr. Mueller to reassign such a senior agent.
There is no justification for withholding all of this from Congress, which is also investigating Russian influence and has constitutional oversight authority. Justice and the FBI have continued to defy legal subpoenas for documents pertaining to both surveillance warrants and the infamous Steele dossier that was financed by the Clinton campaign and relied on anonymous Russian sources.
While there is no evidence so far of Trump-Russia collusion, House investigators have turned up enough material to suggest that anti-Trump motives may have driven Mr. Comey’s FBI investigation. The public has a right to know whether the Steele dossier inspired the Comey probe, and whether it led to intrusive government eavesdropping on campaign satellites such as Carter Page.
All of this reinforces our doubts about Mr. Mueller’s ability to conduct a fair and credible probe of the FBI’s considerable part in the Russia-Trump drama. Mr. Mueller ran the bureau for 12 years and is fast friends with Mr. Comey, whose firing by Mr. Trump triggered his appointment as special counsel. The reluctance to cooperate with a congressional inquiry compounds doubts related to this clear conflict of interest.
Mr. Mueller’s media protectorate argues that anyone critical of the special counsel is trying to cover for Mr. Trump. But the alleged Trump-Russia ties are the subject of numerous probes—Mr. Mueller’s, and those of various committees in the House and Senate. If there is any evidence of collusion, Democrats and Mr. Mueller’s agents will make sure it is spread far and wide.
Yet none of this means the public shouldn’t also know if, and how, America’s most powerful law-enforcement agency was influenced by Russia or partisan U.S. actors. All the more so given Mr. Comey’s extraordinary intervention in the 2016 campaign, which Mrs. Clinton keeps saying turned the election against her. The history of the FBI is hardly without taint.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mr. Mueller, is also playing an increasingly questionable role in resisting congressional oversight. Justice has floated multiple reasons for ignoring House subpoenas, none of them persuasive.
First it claimed cooperation would hurt the Mueller probe, but his prosecutions are proceeding apace. Then Justice claimed that providing House investigators with classified material could hurt security or sources. But House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes has as broad a security clearance as nearly anyone in government. Recently Justice said it can’t interfere with a probe by the Justice Department Inspector General—as if an IG trumps congressional oversight.
Mr. Nunes is understandably furious at the Strzok news, on top of the other stonewalling. He asked Justice to meet the rest of his committee’s demands by close of business Monday, and if it refuses Congress needs to pursue contempt citations against Mr. Rosenstein and new FBI Director Christopher Wray.
The latest news supports our view that Mr. Mueller is too conflicted to investigate the FBI and should step down in favor of someone more credible. The investigation would surely continue, though perhaps with someone who doesn’t think his job includes protecting the FBI and Mr. Comey from answering questions about their role in the 2016 election.