As the investigation into Russian meddling into the 2016 election has progressed, one thing has become very clear: special counsel Robert Mueller takes his job very seriously. The New York Times reported on Saturday that Mueller removed a top FBI agent from his investigation this summer after the Justice Department found he had exchanged texts with a colleague suggesting anti-Trump sentiment. The agent, Peter Strzok, now works in the FBI's human resources department.
According to the Times, Strzok was reassigned after the Justice Department’s inspector general discovered text messages on his phone that could be interpreted as critical of Trump. The inspector general’s office told the Times that the examination of the texts was part of a larger inquiry into how the FBI handled investigations surrounding the 2016 election.
Reports suggest that Mueller, who ran the FBI from 2001 until 2013, knows any illusion that his team holds unfair political biases could sever the public’s trust in the investigation. As Politico noted back in October, the special counsel takes care to avoid speaking with the press, and stays out of the public eye. Under Mueller’s leadership, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort has been charged with tax fraud and money laundering, while former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn has pled guilty to lying to the FBI.
The president has been continuously critical of the FBI, and back in May, he fired the agency’s director, James Comey, citing concerns over the way he handled the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server. Now, with reports that one of its agents may harbor a bias against Trump, the president may ramp up his criticism of the FBI.
Already, the reactions about the news of Strzok's possible bias have been divided. Some see it as a sign that Mueller is taking his job seriously. Andy Lassner, the executive producer of the Ellen Degeneres show, wrote in a tweet that the reassignment showed that the special counsel is "ethical and professional," adding, "His takedown of Trump will be above reproach."
Others, though, pointed out that the fact Strzok led the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails — the FBI eventually concluded there was no criminal wrongdoing on the politician's end — suggests that he may hold left-leaning political biases.
Even so, the move would seem to suggest that Mueller is taking extra precautions for such a high-level investigation. Federal employees are generally expected to refrain from engaging in partisan political activity, and FBI agents are not allowed to work with political campaigns, although, as the Times notes, they can express opinions "privately and publicly on political subjects and candidates."
Since Mueller first started assembling his legal team over the summer, right-wing outlets and politicians have expressed concern that the counsel and his team have a political interest in taking down the president. A July op-ed in the The Washington Times criticized Mueller for bringing Democrats onto his team, writing that no matter what the conclusion of the investigation is, it "will not be accepted by Republicans and there will therefore be no closure on the issue." The Washington Times called for Mueller’s resignation, claiming that he had failed to demonstrate he is fair-minded by allowing Democrats to work on the case.
At the beginning of November, three Republicans introduced a measure in the House of Representatives calling for the special counsel to resign, but most GOP members remain supportive of Mueller. One individual that has remained critical of the investigation is the president himself. At the end of October, when the first indictments against his aides were handed down, Trump diverted attention from the issue by asking why Hillary Clinton wasn't the focus of an investigation. He later suggested that the Department of Justice should re-open the investigation into Clinton's private email server, as well as her role in the Uranium One deal with Russia, among other things.
It doesn't take much for the president to direct his criticism toward intelligence agencies. With this latest bit of news, the president may seize on another opportunity to cast doubt upon Mueller's work.