WASHINGTON — House Republicans ratcheted up criticism of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian meddling Wednesday, questioning whether there was bias on his team of lawyers but stopping short of calling for his firing or resignation.
The criticism directed toward Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein at a House Judiciary Committee hearing comes after the release of anti-Donald Trump text messages exchanged between two FBI officials later assigned to the Russia probe. While Republicans on Capitol Hill are unlikely to support Mueller’s removal, some appear to be laying the groundwork for suggesting the results of the investigation will be unfairly partisan.
House members focused on the hundreds of text messages between an FBI counterintelligence agent and an FBI lawyer. Those messages, which occurred before Mueller was appointed in May to investigate potential coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign, show the officials using words like “idiot” and “loathsome human” to characterize Trump as he was running for president in 2016. One of the officials said in an election night text that the prospect of a Trump victory was “terrifying.”
Republicans also focused on past donations to Democrats made by some members of Mueller’s team.
“How, with a straight face, can you say that this group of Democrat partisans are unbiased and will give President Trump a fair shake?” asked Republican Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio.
Rosenstein defended Mueller. When asked by lawmakers if he had seen good cause to fire Mueller, whom he appointed and whose work he oversees, Rosenstein replied that he had not.
“The special counsel’s investigation is not a witch hunt,” Rosenstein said in response to questions about whether he agreed with Trump’s characterization of the probe. “The independence and integrity of the investigation are not going to be affected by anything that anyone says.”
Critics of the probe may win praise from Trump, who has been pressured by some allies to push back. But there is still little appetite on Capitol Hill to have Mueller removed.
South Carolina Republican Trey Gowdy, who is leading investigations into Democrat Hillary Clinton and leaks from the Russia probe, ticked through the text messages in prosecutorial style at Wednesday’s hearing. But he also said he doesn’t want Mueller removed.
“I think there are prosecutors he could have found that had not donated to major political candidates — I wish he had found them,” Gowdy said. “But ultimately this comes down to facts, and I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt until otherwise necessary.”
The sentiment is similar across the Capitol, where both Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr said in interviews Wednesday they continue to have confidence in Mueller. The two committees are leading their own investigations into Russian interference in the election.
Grassley has criticized the texts, called for another special counsel to investigate an Obama-era uranium deal and repeatedly expressed concerns about political interference at the FBI. Still, he said, “I have confidence in Mueller as far as what he is doing in the Trump-Russia investigation.”
Burr said the revelation of the texts is a good “inflection point” for Mueller to examine his team, but said he still has confidence in the former FBI director’s ability to do the job.
“I know what the standard is that Bob Mueller has to meet and that’s criminality,” Burr said. “It would concern me if that wasn’t the threshold for his investigation, but that’s what it is.”
Mueller’s team has already brought federal charges against four people, including former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Flynn has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.
Peter Strzok, a veteran FBI counterintelligence agent, was removed from Mueller’s team over the summer following the discovery of the text messages exchanged with Lisa Page, an FBI lawyer who was also detailed to the group of agents and prosecutors investigating potential coordination between Russia and Trump’s Republican campaign.
“When we have evidence of any inappropriate conduct, we’re going to take action on it. That’s what Mr. Mueller did here. As soon as he learned about this issue, he took action,” Rosenstein said.
Hundreds of the messages, which surfaced in a Justice Department inspector general investigation of the FBI’s inquiry into Clinton’s use of a private email server, were being provided to congressional committees and were reviewed by The Associated Press on Tuesday night.
Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, a member of the intelligence panel, said he believes the problems on Mueller’s team — such as the text messages — are an “anomaly” and said the “mass majority” of Republicans want to see him stay in place.
Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said he doesn’t believe there is increased opposition to Mueller in Congress.
“I think there’s a campaign to try and undermine him, but I don’t see opposition,” he said.
Associated Press writer Eric Tucker contributed to this report.