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Justice Department defends Russia probe from GOP claims of FBI political bias

The deputy attorney general defended Robert Mueller's Russia investigation on Wednesday against GOP charges that the probe is a partisan "witch hunt" against President Trump. House members pointed to text messages by a top FBI official about Trump as a candidate. Hari Sreenivasan talks with former U.S. attorney general Michael Mukasey and former acting solicitor general Neal Katyal.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The man who oversees special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe was grilled today on Capitol Hill.

    As Hari Sreenivasan reports, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein defended himself against Republican charges that the investigation is a partisan witch-hunt against the president.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The chair of the House Judiciary Committee kicked off the hearing with a litany of what he called — quote — "insider bias" against President Trump.

  • Rep. Bob Goodlatte:

    Mr. Deputy Attorney General, the Department of Justice's reputation as an impartial arbiter of justice has been called into question.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Text messages that were turned over to Congress by the Justice Department yesterday.

    Peter Strzok, a top FBI official, texted an agency lawyer that the prospect of candidate Trump becoming president was "terrifying" and that Hillary Clinton "just has to win."

    Strzok had investigated Clinton's use of a private e-mail server, and after President Trump won, he was named to the team investigating the president's ties to Russia. Special counsel Mueller removed Strzok when he became aware of the texts.

    Still, Goodlatte said the texts were proof of political animus behind the investigation.

  • Rep. Bob Goodlatte:

    These text messages prove what we all suspected. High-ranking FBI officials involved in the Clinton investigation were personally invested in the outcome of the election, and clearly let their strong political opinions cloud their professional judgment.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Rosenstein insisted that the investigation wasn't tainted by agents' political leanings.

  • Rod Rosenstein:

    We recognize we have employees with political opinions, and it's our responsibility to make sure those opinions do not influence their actions.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Several Democrats raised fears that Rosenstein would fire Mueller, at the president's request.

  • Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee:

    Will you protect Mr. Mueller, if he deserves the protection and has done nothing to violate his duties and responsibilities?

  • Rod Rosenstein:

    I won't take any action unless he's violated his duties.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    GOP members, such as Jim Jordan, have been calling for a second special counsel to investigate bias in Mueller's probe.

  • Rep. Jim Jordan:

    You're the guy in charge. You could disband the Mueller special prosecutor and you can do what we have all called for- appoint a second special counsel to look into this.

  • Rod Rosenstein:

    We take very seriously the concerns of 20 members of this committee or one member of this committee, but we have a responsibility to make an independent determination, and we will.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    One of Mueller's top deputies, Andrew Weissmann, has also come under scrutiny for an e-mail praising former acting Attorney General Sally Yates. He told her he was "so proud and in awe" of her refusal to enforce the president's travel ban.

    We take a closer look at the ramped-up campaign by some conservative lawmakers to discredit Mueller's probe with two former Justice Department officials who worked under different presidential administrations.

    Michael Mukasey was U.S. attorney general under President Bush from 2007 to 2009. And Neal Katyal served as acting solicitor general under President Obama from 2010 to 2011. Both now work in private practice.

    Neal, let me start with you.

    For the record, we should mention that you — Mukasey — well, we should mention that you are fighting the Trump travel ban in court.

    But we have you on here tonight because you helped write the rules on special counsel regulations in the 1990s.

    So, based on the texts, some of the texts that we have seen being exchanged with between FBI officials, is there evidence of bias here? Is there evidence enough to fire Robert Mueller?

  • Neal Katyal:

    Not at all.

    I mean, I think that it's very common for investigation — investigators, prosecutors, or agents to have political opinions. I mean, Judge Mukasey, who is a Republican, was a fabulous judge on the Southern District in New York, one of the very best. He was a Republican. He was also the attorney general of the United States. He was a Republican.

    So the fact that they have political views, I don't think is important. I think the critical thing, as Rod Rosenstein said today, is, are their views somehow impacting their actions? Are they indicting someone that they shouldn't be or something like that?

    And if they're doing the job impartially, then that's all that you need. And here, I think, you know, Mueller's investigation so far, all indicia are, it's impartial, it's professional. This is a guy who was nominated for five different Senate-confirmed positions by four different presidents, including two Republicans.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Mr. Mukasey, one of Trump's lawyers is calling for an investigation into the investigation. Would that solve anything? Do you have concerns with how the investigation is being handled?

  • Michael Mukasey:

    I have concerns, but I don't think they would be dissipated by a step like that.

    I think the problem with the Mueller investigation is really twofold. One is in the way that it was set up. And the second is in part the way that it's staffed.

    As Neal Katyal knows, at least as well as I do, if not better, because he wrote the regulations, according to the regulations, there's supposed to be a finding that a criminal investigation is warranted and that the Justice Department is conflicted in conducting it where there are other special circumstances. And then this person selected as special counsel is supposed to be provided with a specific statement of what it is he is supposed to be investigating that suggests the existence of a crime.

    Now, here, the letter that appointed Robert Mueller from Rod Rosenstein said that he was to pursue the investigation that was testified to by James Comey when he testified in front of the House Intelligence Committee, and that he was to investigate — that this included — quote — "any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump."

    Well, the investigation that was testified to by James Comey wasn't a criminal investigation. It was a national security investigation. And links or coordination may sound sinister, but it doesn't define or suggest the existence of a crime.

    So, what's been defined here, or not defined here, is something that looks very much like a fishing expedition or a safari. Now, Mr. Rosenstein was urged to define what it is that Mr. Mueller is supposed to be investigating, and he said that he and Mr. Mueller have an understanding about that, and that if Mr. Mueller is going to go any further, he will check with Mr. Rosenstein.

    We don't do business that way, based on private understandings between public officials. And I think that's part of the reason why this investigation has strayed as far as it has.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Neal Katyal, the president has called this a witch-hunt or a fishing expedition or a safari. Your response?

  • Neal Katyal:

    So, absolutely not.

    I think Judge Mukasey is right that it does require a high threshold, some showing that there is criminal wrongdoing, which is why these calls for a special counsel to investigate the special counsel, kind of Dr. Seuss-like bee watchers watching bee watcher watchers and the like, is ridiculous.

    But the idea that it's a fishing expedition, obviously, Rosenstein — and, remember — let's remember who Rosenstein is. He's not some Obama holdover or something. He's President Trump's guy. He's the acting attorney general of the United States for this investigation.

    He found in that letter that the Russia stuff was important and merited an investigation. And, lo and behold, we know that that judgment was right, because there have been indictments because of Russia with respect to Manafort, Papadopoulos, Flynn, et cetera.

    So, then the question is, what do you do when there's an investigation that starts to get close and the heat gets up? Well, it seems like, from today's hearing, the Republicans are saying and President Trump are saying, oh, we can't trust this guy Mueller.

    But that's not the way the system works. The way the system works is, let them bring the indictments. It's not as if — you know, you have got to get grand juries to sign off and then you need a jury to convict. So, there's all sorts of systems — safeguards that are built into the system.

    But, at the end of the day, there's also one other important check, which is Rod Rosenstein. He's Trump's guy. And President Trump is saying, I can't even trust him to supervise Mueller.

    And that just adds to the laundry list of people the president doesn't trust, you know, not just the Democratic Party, but the Republican Party and the media and so-called judges and Comey and the FBI and Chris Wray, which is his own appointee to the FBI. And the list goes on and on.

    And, at some point, you have got to ask — and we have a word for this in law enforcement, when you see someone who is so afraid of everyone. The word begins G and ends with Y.

    And I hope that's not true, but that's sure what it's sure looking like.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Mr. Mukasey, finally, you were attorney general at one time. How are these investigations structured? Is it possible for one individual or a pair of individuals to shape the outcome?

  • Michael Mukasey:

    Sure, it's possible.

    And part of the problem here is that, although we just heard that there were indictments and charges, those indictments and charges had absolutely nothing to do with any criminal participation by the Russians in anything.

    Mr. Manafort was indicted for not reporting his status as an agent of a foreign power, and not reporting his receipt of funds for apparently lawful activity. But he didn't register and he didn't report. Both Papadopoulos and Flynn were charged with and pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI over their contacts with Russians, but nothing having to do with participation in the election.

    So we have strayed very far from where this was supposed to have gone. That was my point.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right, Michael Mukasey, Neal Katyal, thank you both.

  • Neal Katyal:

    Thank you.

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