Zach Gibson/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) — The Justice Department is rejecting accusations that it inappropriately offered several reporters access to private communications between two FBI officials who later worked on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team.
“Senior career ethics advisors determined that there were no legal or ethical concerns that prohibited the release of the information to the public either by members of Congress or by the department,” the Justice Department said in a statement today.
During a House hearing on Wednesday, Democrats raised concerns over the public disclosure of the messages, which were sent last year between FBI attorney Lisa Page and FBI agent Peter Strzok and document them repeatedly mocking then-presidential candidate Donald Trump in harsh terms.
In what one Democrat suggested was an “extraordinary” move on the eve of the House Judiciary Committee hearing, the Justice Department “invited a group of reporters to its offices to view the private text messages,” as Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-New York, put it.
At the hearing the next day, Republicans then used the newly-released messages to push allegations of political bias within the FBI and the sprawling probe by Mueller, who is looking at whether Trump associates tried to help Russia influence last year’s presidential election and whether White House officials may have sought to obstruct the investigation.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein dismissed suggestions that Mueller or his probe were tainted, insisting there is nobody “better qualified for this job” and noting “political affiliation” is not the same as political “bias.”
“I’ve discussed this with Director Mueller, and … we recognize we have employees with political opinions. It’s our responsibility to make sure those opinions do not influence their actions,” Rosenstein told the House panel. “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.”
Over the summer, the Justice Department’s inspector general, looking into an array of FBI actions tied to last year’s election, discovered the FBI officials’ text messages and notified senior department officials. Mueller immediately removed Strzok, and by then Page had already left the team.
After recent news accounts reported that Strzok was axed from the team for sending potentially anti-Trump messages, lawmakers demanded to see the messages for themselves.
On Tuesday night, the Justice Department sent about 375 of the messages, with limited redactions, to at least three congressional committees. Around the same time, reporters from several media outlets were able to review those messages at the Justice Department, under the condition that the information not be attributed to the Justice Department. But the next day, Rosenstein acknowledged to lawmakers that his department allowed reporters to see the messages.
“I’m not aware of any impropriety in what the department has done in making these text messages available,” and “not aware” of “any evidence that we disclosed information to a reporter that wasn’t appropriate for public release or wasn’t disclosed to the Congress,” Rosenstein assured the House Judiciary Committee.
According to a statement from Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Flores, “When the initial inquiries came from committees and members of Congress, the Deputy Attorney General consulted with the Inspector General, and the Inspector General determined that he had no objection to the Department’s providing the material to the Congressional committees that had requested it.”
The “senior career ethics advisors” then conducted their own review and determined no concerns related to the Privacy Act were implicated in releasing the messages, Flores said.
While many have criticized the Justice Department for making private messages available to reporters in the midst of an ongoing inspector general probe, the Justice Department under President Barack Obama took similar steps.
In 2011 and 2012, when Congress was demanding the Justice Department turn over internal emails related to the botched gun-running probe known as “Fast and Furious,” the department repeatedly invited reporters to a department conference room to view private messages.
Inside the Justice Department in Washington, a department official would hand out copies of the documents after they were sent to Capitol Hill and then brief reporters on individual emails sent to and from department employees. The documents were not provided under any condition of anonymity.
The Justice Department began briefing reporters on “Fast and Furious”-related documents only after select portions of documents sent to Congress were repeatedly leaked.
At the time, the Justice Department’s inspector general was still engaged in a wide-ranging, internal investigation related to the failed gun-running probe and the department’s response to congressional inquiries about it.
In trying to explain his own department’s recent decisions, Rosenstein told lawmakers Wednesday: “Our goal … is to make sure that it’s clear to you and the American people, we are not concealing anything that’s embarrassing.”
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