Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein speaks before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)
Opinion writer

President Trump is going hammer and tongs not at Russia, which meddled in our election and hacked the Democratic National Committee, and not even (or only) after Democrats. He’s decided to wage war against the FBI, perhaps unintentionally encouraged by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who released to Congress (with a special preview for the press) the text messages between senior FBI agent Peter Strzok and senior FBI lawyer Lisa Page.

The Justice Department’s spokeswoman was adamant in a series of email exchanges with Right Turn on Thursday evening that Rosenstein had no choice but to publicly release the information. “The IG personally cleared the release of these text messages saying that his investigation was nearly closed and he didn’t see any legitimate reason to keep them from Congress,” insisted Sarah Isgur Flores, director of public affairs. “Then career ethics officials cleared the release of these texts for privacy, legal and ethics concerns. So at that point, we had a number of requests from Congress and no legitimate reason we could decline to turn them over.” She defended the decision, reiterating: “We are all doing the best we can over here to ensure a fair and consistent process for all parties.”

That doesn’t quite hold up, since nothing required Justice to bring in the press to view the texts. Business Insider reports, “The Department of Justice acknowledged in a statement on Thursday night that copies of private text messages exchanged between two former special-counsel investigators were disclosed to certain members of the media before they were given to Congress, even though those disclosures ‘were not authorized.’ ” The report continues: “It is true that the DOJ will sometimes give documents to reporters that it is already going to hand over to Congress. But it is not clear that the DOJ had ever released private text messages to the press that were the subject of an ongoing investigation by the Office of the Inspector General. At least some of those disclosures now appear to have been unauthorized.”

Moreover, the pending inspector general’s investigation would certainly warrant at the very least a delay in making the materials available. (As someone who refused to answer questions from Congress without formally invoking the executive privilege, Rosenstein’s affection for immediate transparency and cooperation with Congress would not have been predicted.) Moreover, while ethics officers told Rosenstein, according to the Justice Department, that they did not have any objection, it was Rosenstein’s call and fully within his discretion to weigh the harm to the ongoing investigation, Justice and the FBI in deciding to release the texts with a special viewing for the press.

With a heads-up from the press, Republicans on the committee predictably turned Thursday’s hearing into a searing attack on the FBI. Politico reported that Democrats on the committee demanded answers:

In their letter Thursday, the Democrats asked DOJ Public Affairs Director Sarah Isgur Flores to name the DOJ officials who evaluated the content of the text messages to ensure they could be released. They also requested the names of who at DOJ gave the green light to share the messages with the media at the same time they were being delivered to Congress. [ranking member Jerry] Nadler, joined by Democratic Reps. Hakeem Jeffries of New York and Jamie Raskin of Maryland, also asked for a list of which reporters and media outlets attended the Tuesday night briefing and any documents they were shown.

Nadler told me Friday morning in an email that it’s obvious the GOP’s tactic of choice in running interference for the president is now to smear the FBI. “The outlandish and irresponsible attacks by Republicans and Conservative media on the Department of Justice pose a significant threat to our national security and our fundamental democratic principles,” he said. “The Deputy Attorney General said unequivocally in our hearing that there is no good basis to fire the Special Counsel or to terminate his investigation. House Judiciary Republicans, on the other hand, certainly are enablers of President Trump’s worst instincts — attacks on the Justice Department, attacking the reputation of the FBI, disregarding statute, regulation, and common sense to try to force the Special Counsel to back off as the walls close in on the President.”

Trump is now in high dudgeon, accusing the FBI of bias and gross misconduct. The Post reports:

“It’s a shame what’s happened with the FBI,’’ the president told reporters as he prepared to depart the White House for a ceremony at the FBI’s National Academy where more than 200 law enforcement officers graduated from a program that imparts FBI expertise and standards.

“We’re going to rebuild the FBI, it’ll be bigger and better than ever, but it is very sad when you look at those documents, and how they’ve done that is really, really disgraceful and you have a lot of very angry people that are seeing it,’’ Trump said.

The president appeared to be referring to revelations that senior FBI officials exchanged anti-Trump and pro-Hillary Clinton text messages while working on last year’s probe of Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state and again during special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into whether any Trump associates coordinated with Russian officials to interfere with the presidential election.

If these words sound familiar, it is because they echo the false narrative put forth to fire former FBI director James Comey, namely that the FBI was suffering from low morale and in disarray. The ramifications of Rosenstein’s decision surely should provoke some soul-searching at the Justice Department.

Rosenstein, it has been argued, is in an impossible situation, trying not to get fired by a hot-headed president while overseeing an investigation that one party has cast as illegitimate. However, the past 48 hours should make clear that Rosenstein shouldn’t be in the business of throwing fuel on the bonfire that Republican partisans are using to roast the FBI — at least not if he wants to preserve the reputation of the FBI and complete the investigation.

UPDATE: Contrary to Flores’s representation to me and other reporters, the inspector general never cleared release of the texts.

UPDATE II: The DOJ’s inspector general released a statement Friday, confirming two points we have made. First, while the IG “did not object to the Department releasing to Congress records that it had previously produced to us in the course of our ongoing review … the Department was responsible for making its own determination about whether any restrictions, such as those affecting grand jury information, limited what records it may provide to Congress.” In other words, this was Rosenstein’s call, not one mandated by the IG. Second, the IG had no role in and did not comment on release of the texts to the media (“At no time prior to the release of the text messages did the Department consult with the OIG about providing records to the media”), an extraordinary action that set the stage for the feeding frenzy at Thursday’s hearing. Flores told me in the email exchange described above that “the IG personally cleared the release of these text messages saying that his investigation was nearly closed and he didn’t see any legitimate reason to keep them from Congress”; she did not say “the IG personally cleared the release of these text messages to Congress.” The IG’s statement appears to have taken pains to dispel the impression, one Flores surely left with me, that the IG had cleared release of the texts widely (e.g. both to the press and Congress).