Former special counsel Robert Mueller defended his investigating team against claims of political bias against President Trump at a House Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday.
“We strove to hire those individuals that could do the job,” Mueller said about the hiring process behind the two-year investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. “I have been in this business for almost 25 years, and in those 25 years, I have not had occasion once to ask somebody about their political affiliation. It is not done. What I care about is the capability of the individual to do the job and do the job quickly and seriously and with integrity.”
“This isn’t about you being able to vouch for your team,” said Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D. “This is about knowing that the day you accepted this role you had to be aware that no matter what this report concluded, half of the country was going to be skeptical to your team’s findings.”
Armstrong continued: “I can’t imagine a single prosecutor or judge that I have ever appeared in front of would be comfortable with these circumstances where over half of the prosecutorial team had a direct relationship to the opponent of the person being investigated.”
The GOP lawmaker zeroed in on former FBI Special Agent Peter Strzok, who was taken off Mueller’s team after his text messages disparaging President Trump were discovered by Justice Department investigators. The texts intensified scrutiny around the genesis of the Russia probe, the credibility of which Republicans sought to undermine.
Armstrong noted that during a 2018 congressional hearing Strzok “said he was fired at least partially because [Mueller] was concerned about preserving the appearance of independence with the special counsel investigation.”
When asked if he fired Strzok for this reason, Mueller said, “No, he was transferred as a result of instances involving texts.”
Earlier in his testimony, Mueller was asked by Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, about “Peter Strzok’s animus toward Donald Trump.”
“Peter Strzok hated Trump,” Gohmert said. “You didn’t know that before he was made part of your team?”
“No, I did not know that,” Mueller replied. “And when I did find out, I acted swiftly to have him reassigned elsewhere in the FBI.”
Mueller was asked about conflicts of interest by other staffers, including his former deputy in the special counsel’s office. The deputy, Aaron Zebley, previously represented a former Clinton aide who helped set up a private email server for her when she was secretary of state. Zebley accompanied Mueller to the hearing and to a second hearing before the House Intelligence Committee.
Armstrong also pressed Mueller about when he found out Andrew Weissmann, one of the investigation’s top prosecutors, attended Clinton’s election night party. Mueller said he wasn’t sure. And when asked whether he knew his top aide Jeannie Rhee had represented Clinton in litigation regarding personal emails, Mueller responded, “No.”
Trump, throughout the investigation, repeatedly derided it as a “witch hunt” or attacked his staff members as “angry Democrats” and supporters of Hillary Clinton.
Mueller pointed out that from the 19 lawyers hired throughout the 22-month investigation, “14 of them were transferred from elsewhere in the Department of Justice. Only five came from outside —”
“And half of them had a direct relationship, political or personal, with the opponent of the person you were investigating,” Armstrong interrupted. “I wonder if not a single word in this entire report was changed, but rather the only difference was we switched Hillary Clinton and President Trump.”
He continued: “If Peter Strzok had texted those terrible things about Hillary Clinton instead of President Trump, if a team of lawyers worked for or donated thousands of dollars to and went to Trump’s parties instead of Clinton's, I don’t think we’d be here trying to prop up an obstruction allegation. My colleagues would’ve spent the last four months accusing your team of being bought and paid for by the Trump campaign and we couldn’t trust a single word of this report.”