This post has been updated with the latest news.
There are a couple of avenues that critics say Republicans are using to discredit the special counsel investigation into Trump-Russia meddling. One that has seized Washington's attention this week involves months of private texts by two FBI officials.
Here's what we definitively know about that: During the presidential campaign and after, two senior FBI officials who were having an affair texted their opinions about all sorts of politically interesting things. How they feel about Donald Trump being president. Whether they think there's a “there there” in the FBI's investigation into Russia collusion. Why the FBI was quietly investigating Trump even though it didn't think he would win.
When the FBI found out about these texts in July, it kicked FBI agent Peter Strzok off the special counsel investigation. Congress got hold of the texts, and this week we learned that a chunk of them spanning from December 2016 to May 2017 were missing. That was during all the Trump-FBI Director James B. Comey drama. The FBI said a glitch of the Samsung phones they were texting on failed to capture the texts, including from thousands of other phones that got caught up in the same glitch. The Justice Department's inspector general said Thursday his office has found the missing texts.
Okay. So those are the facts. Here's what high-ranking congressional Republicans are saying about those same facts:
- At the top levels of the FBI, there is “an unbelievable level of bias.”
- Possible corruption at the highest levels of the FBI. These texts have some “pretty concerning certain phrases.”
- Maybe these texts show there is some kind of secret society of top FBI officials, who meet off the record to, ostensibly, do things that further their anti-Trump bias.
- And the biggie: Maybe special counsel Robert S. Mueller III should step down over these texts. “He's perfectly qualified for his investigation [into Russia meddling]," Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who also asserted all of the above, said on NPR's "Morning Edition" on Thursday. “But now that this thing has expanded into for-sure bias, and possibly corruption at the highest levels of the FBI, he would not be qualified to investigate that. He's just too close; he has too many conflicts of interest.”
When asked by NPR's David Greene whether there is a coordinated effort to discredit Mueller's investigation, Johnson didn't deny there is one. But he said he is not part of it. “My involvement goes back three years, and the same [for the] investigation into what I believe was a crime by Secretary Clinton.”
Greene cut the senator off. It was at least the third time in one interview that Johnson, when asked to explain how these texts demonstrate large-scale bias and corruption at the FBI, had veered into an investigation that ended more than a year ago.
Actually, in Republican-controlled committees in Congress, those Hillary Clinton investigations are starting up again. Weeks before the special counsel announced its first charges of Trump campaign officials, congressional Republicans announced two investigations related to Clinton stemming from when she was secretary of state.
Here's the problem with all this: Unless Johnson knows something we don't, there is no evidence that these texts signify any kind of political motivation by the FBI itself. And when pressed on this, Republicans like Johnson consistently fall back on asking whether the FBI gave Clinton a pass with her email server.
There is zero evidence of a secret society. In fact the texts suggest — and Johnson has since acknowledged — it looks like Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page were just joking about it.
Another text Johnson keeps reciting to make a case is Strzok telling Page he wasn't sure he would join the Russia investigation because “my gut sense and concern is there’s no big there there.”
Johnson has categorized that language as “concerning,” suggesting it demonstrated a bias on Strzok's part. But, bias of what? That he didn't want to join an investigation that wouldn't implicate Trump?
And, other days, Johnson has held Strzok's hesitation up as an example that even the FBI thinks there is no collusion, and that Trump is innocent.
“For him to be saying there's no big 'there there' after five months of investigations tells you something,” Johnson said on Fox News on Wednesday.
In short, there's no smoking gun yet that proves the FBI is remotely biased against Trump.
The person the investigation ultimately answers to — who likely knows much more than Johnson and other congressional Republicans do — doesn't seem worried that Mueller's team is compromised.
“We recognize we have employees with political opinions. It's our responsibility to make sure those opinions do not influence their actions,” Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein told Congress.
Here's why this all matters politically: Up until recently, Trump and his closest allies have really been the only ones in Washington arguing that the Russia investigation is a politically motivated hoax.
Most congressional Republicans aren't quite going that far. But at the very least, Trump now has chairmen of powerful committees out there saying there is political bias at the highest levels of the FBI and suggesting there might be corruption as well, perpetrated, perhaps, by secret, deep-state meetings.
This is all escalating exactly when Trump would like it to: when the special counsel is trying to interview the president himself about potential obstruction of justice related to his firing of Comey as FBI director.
It sure looks like there is a coordinated effort among Republicans to undermine the Mueller investigation, exactly when it's starting to get very serious.