FBI Chief Stands by Mueller as GOP Assails Probe as Anti-Trump

(Bloomberg) -- FBI Director Christopher Wray stood by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, as Republicans asserted that the investigation he’s leading into Russian election meddling was tainted by anti-Trump bias from the start.

“I do not believe Special Counsel Mueller is on a witch hunt,” Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday, repeating his formulation before the same panel almost a year ago, as the politically riven committee reviewed a 500-page report issued last week by the Justice Department’s inspector general.

President Donald Trump, who often calls Mueller’s probe a “witch hunt,” claimed vindication in the report’s account of anti-Trump bias among some FBI officials in 2016, before Mueller took over the inquiry into Russian election interference, whether anyone close to Trump colluded in it and whether Trump sought to obstruct the inquiry.

Senator Chuck Grassley, the Judiciary Committee’s Republican chairman, said the report shows Democrat Hillary Clinton got “kid-glove” treatment from the FBI and Justice Department while they continue to use “brass-knuckle” tactics against Trump.

‘Double Standard’

“The Justice Department faces a serious credibility problem because millions of Americans suspect there is a double standard,” Grassley said in opening the hearing on the report by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz.

Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the committee’s top Democrat, countered that Horowitz found “no evidence that the FBI or Justice Department are politicizing investigations and nothing warrants attacks that we are seeing on the FBI, the Justice Department or the special counsel’s investigation.”

The inspector general found that former FBI Director James Comey was “insubordinate” and made several critical mistakes in handling the probe into Clinton’s use of a private email server. But he concluded the FBI wasn’t biased or politically motivated in deciding not to seek charges against the former secretary of state for mishandling classified information. Horowitz also criticized Comey for revealing he was reopening the Clinton inquiry just days before the 2016 election.

“If the FBI were trying to throw the election to Hillary Clinton, they could not have done a worse job,” said Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

Comey’s Memos

Horowitz defended his report in testimony Monday as an “objective” summary of 17 months of investigation. He also disclosed that he’s investigating Comey’s handling of memos he wrote after conversations with Trump, including giving one to a friend to read to reporters.

Trump and many Republicans have zeroed in on the inspector general’s secondary findings, especially that five FBI officials expressed hostility toward Trump before his election, which Grassley called “shocking news.” Horowitz said their actions have been referred to the bureau for possible discipline.

If not for the inspector general’s digging that uncovered the anti-Trump bias, Grassley said, "they would still be plotting how to use their official position to stop him. We just wouldn’t know about it.”

But no Republican called directly for Mueller to be fired or restricted in his investigation, and Wray said he didn’t think the report “speaks to the special counsel’s investigation.”

“I believe that the question of Russian interference with our election is something that needs to be taken very seriously and the investigative work that’s being done in that regard needs to be completed,” Wray added later.

‘Hold Accountable’

Wray, who Trump named to head the Federal Bureau of Investigation after firing Comey, told the Senate panel that the inspector general’s report identified “errors of judgment, violations of or disregard for policy and decisions” that in hindsight were wrong. He said “we are going to hold accountable any employee for potential misconduct.”

Trump falsely claimed Friday that the report proves his campaign didn’t collude with Russia to interfere in the election, and proves that he didn’t act to obstruct the Russia investigation.

Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union" that Mueller’s investigation should now itself be the subject of a federal probe.

“I’m not really saying the special counsel; I’m saying what led up to the special counsel. I don’t think Mueller and his people need to be investigated unless something comes out of that,” Giuliani said. “Remember, you’ve got a bunch of odd things that led to the appointment of Bob.”

Giuliani became a subject of attention at Monday’s hearing: Feinstein asked Horowitz if he investigated whether the former New York mayor received leaked information that the FBI had found new Clinton emails before news about them became public in late October 2016. Horowitz declined to comment, saying the issue of leaks is still under investigation.

Leahy said Giuliani and House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes received “highly secret leaks.”

Trump and his allies cited a freshly disclosed exchange of text messages from August 2016 in which FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page questioned whether Trump would become president. Strzok replied: “No. No he’s not. We’ll stop it.”

Strzok was the lead FBI agent in the Clinton investigation and was involved in an early phase of the FBI’s Russia investigation, although Mueller removed him from the current inquiry. Page at the time was an FBI lawyer but has since left the bureau. Strzok’s lawyer said over the weekend that his client would welcome the opportunity to testify before Congress.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.