Deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein appeared before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, testifying shortly after the publication of anti-Trump texts written by an FBI agent who had been involved in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the election and any possible connections to the Trump campaign.
Unsurprisingly, the Republicans on that committee used this new evidence as part of a larger effort to discredit the entire investigation. Mueller took the agent in question off of the investigation after evidence of the texts came to his light in August and those messages—currently the subject of a Justice Department inspector general inquiry—certainly deserve scrutiny. But the GOP members of the committee went much further than that, smearing the character of other members of Mueller’s team based entirely on political affiliations.
“None of this is about text messages,” Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal offered. “It is rather a full-fledged, irresponsible, and rather very dangerous attempt on the other side to attack and undermine Robert Mueller’s investigation and his credibility and to lay the groundwork for a desire to fire Robert Mueller or invalidate the results of his investigation.”
For his part, Rosenstein said that he saw no good cause at this time to remove Mueller. The special counsel, Rosenstein added, has his full faith and confidence.
Trump has reportedly considered firing Mueller in the past and the special counsel’s investigation is drawing dangerously closer to the president’s inner circle. During Wednesday’s hearing, member after Republican member made statements suggesting—or outright alleging—corruption on the part of the rest of Mueller’s team. One of the earliest and and most vituperative cheerleaders for this transparent effort was, ironically, one of President Bill Clinton’s prosecutors and one of former independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s greatest defenders from accusations of political bias: Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio.
Considering his own previous statements on the subject, Chabot’s performance at this hearing was dizzying in its hypocrisy and shamelessness.
Chabot started his testimony by naming every member of Mueller’s team who had donated to Democratic candidates in the past, nine in all. He also noted after each reference that these investigators had donated “zero to the Trump campaign.” As many Democratic members of the committee pointed out, federal investigators are allowed to have their own private political affiliations. Jayapal noted that Rosenstein, former FBI Director James Comey, and Mueller were all lifelong Republicans themselves. Mueller, for his part, was previously a President George W. Bush appointee as head of the FBI, while Rosenstein is a Trump appointee to his current position.
Still, after listing the perfectly rightful campaign donations that these investigators made before they took part in this probe, Chabot challenged Rosenstein: “How with a straight face can you say that this group of Democrat partisans are unbiased and will give president Trump a fair shake?”
“We recognize that we have employees with political opinions and it’s our responsibility to make sure those opinions do not influence their actions,” Rosenstein responded. “I believe that Director Mueller understands that and he is running that office appropriately, recognizing that people have political views but ensuring that those views are not in any way a factor in how they conduct themselves in office.”
Chabot continued his attack:
[When he was first appointed] I assumed, as many of us did, that Mr. Mueller would pull together an unbiased team. But rather than wearing stripes as umpires and referees might wear, I would submit that the Mueller team overwhelmingly ought to be attired with Democratic donkeys on their jerseys, or ‘I’m with Hillary’ tee shirts. Certainly not with ‘let’s make America great again.’ I think that’s a shame because I think the American people deserve a lot better than the very biased team that they’re getting under Robert Mueller, and I think that it’s really sad.
Again, this attack is particularly odious given Chabot’s own history. Chabot was one of the judiciary committee members who advanced articles of impeachment against Bill Clinton in 1998 for alleged perjury and obstruction of justice. “What message are we sending the youth of America if we abdicate our constitutional duty and allow perjury, obstruction of justice and abuse of power to go unpunished,” he said at the time. “When we cast our votes, we are not voting as Republicans or Democrats, we are voting as Americans. Our allegiance does not lie with any one president but with our country.”
During that period, independent counsel Kenneth Starr had been criticized over allegations of excessive partisanship. One critic in Slate, for example, noted that Starr had given more than $8,000 to Republican candidates in the first few years that he was independent counsel, including $1,750 “to his law firm’s political-action committee so that they could donate to the presidential campaign of Republican Bob Dole in 1996.”
During questioning of Starr in 1998, Chabot described suggestions that political affiliation might bias an independent investigation into the White House as being part of a broader a smear campaign:
It seems pretty clear to me that there’s a strategy by Bill Clinton and his allies to demonize anybody who gets in their way—Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, Henry Hyde; you, Judge Starr; this committee; even the press, to some extent. It’s everybody else’s fault, and everybody else is to blame—everybody except Bill Clinton, except the president.
Now in criminal cases … it’s a pretty common practice to do this. If the facts of the case are against you, if your client is pretty clearly guilty, put the police on trial. ’They planted the evidence, the police are corrupt, they forced your client to sign the confession’—anything to get your client off the hook…
Judge Starr, my question to you is this: How difficult is it for you, as an independent counsel, to do your job when you’re up against this onslaught, particularly when you’re limited in your ability to defend yourself and to defend the other prosecutors under you and to defend your staff in a public forum—limited, that is, until today?
After this impassioned defense of the integrity of independent investigators who happen to have donated to political campaigns, Chabot went on to serve as one of the House managers in the Senate impeachment trial of Clinton.
Now he’s carrying water for President Trump’s attempts to discredit Bob Mueller using the very accusations he defended against two decades ago. If that effort ultimately succeeds and Republicans allow Trump to disband an investigation that has already indicted three people—including two of the president’s closest campaign confidantes—the consequences would be grave. “I believe [it] would cripple our democracy,” Jayapal said. It would also ultimately represent an attack on the rule of law “the likes of which we have not seen since Watergate. “