The office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller removed a top investigator amid allegations that he had sent text messages appearing critical of President Donald Trump, the office confirmed on Saturday.
Mueller is overseeing the FBI’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and possible coordination with the Trump campaign. Peter Strzok, who as an FBI official helped oversee the probe into Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal email server, joined Mueller’s team after it launched in May. But in August, news outlets reported that he was no longer involved in the special counsel effort.
Mueller’s office removed Strzok after the Department of Justice inspector general discovered text messages he had exchanged about news events that could be considered anti-Trump, according to the Times and The Washington Post. The Times said he was reassigned to the human resources department at the FBI and that he is still there.
“Immediately upon learning of the allegations, the special counsel’s office removed Peter Strzok from the investigation,” Peter Carr, a spokesman for the office, said in a statement to Newsweek and other outlets on Saturday.
Strzok exchanged the text messages with another person who had been on Mueller’s team, Lisa Page, according to the Post. Page, who was an FBI lawyer before joining the special counsel team, left the team to return to the FBI in July, the special counsel’s office confirmed weeks later. The two were involved in a romantic relationship, the Post reported. Newsweek could not reach Strzok or Page through the FBI press office on Saturday.
Trump’s legal team had been searching for potential conflicts of interest among Mueller’s investigators, the Times and the Post reported in July. Supporters of the president have pointed to Democratic campaign contributions by members of the special counsel team, and to the Uranium One deal with Russia that Clinton’s State Department helped approve, which happened while Mueller was FBI director. Republicans in the House of Representatives have put forward measures to limit the special counsel probe or have called for his ousting or resignation.
Trump supporters will likely view the revelations about Strzok as a path toward discrediting the Mueller probe. But following the news, analysts pointed out that his reassignment suggests that Mueller has worked to avoid any conflicts of interest.
The discovery of the text messages reportedly came as part of the Justice Department’s inspector general investigation into the handling of the Clinton email server probe. During a House Oversight Committee hearing in November, Inspector General Michael Horowitz said the probe was ongoing and that he expects to release the final report in March or April of 2018.
On Saturday, following the reports about Strzok, the inspector general’s office said in a statement that as part of its investigation, “the OIG has been reviewing allegations involving communications between certain individuals, and will report its findings regarding those allegations promptly upon completion of the review of them.”
Republicans have accused the FBI of an anti-Trump and pro-Clinton bias, especially since former FBI Director James Comey announced in July 2016 that the bureau would not be recommending charges against Clinton. In recent months, Trump and his allies have pointed out that FBI documents show that Comey and senior officials began drafting that July 2016 statement months in advance. Strzok was among the officials on the email chain about drafting the statement.
Trump and other Republicans have also pointed out that FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe’s wife ran for state senate and received campaign contributions from entities affiliated with Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, a Clinton ally. On Friday, Senator Chuck Grassley, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, claiming that documents appeared to show that McCabe violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits certain government employees from participating in some political activities. The FBI has said that McCabe played no role in his wife’s campaign fundraising and that he did not help oversee the Clinton investigation until after his wife’s campaign was over.
The news about Strzok comes as Mueller’s investigation advances. On Friday, his office announced a charge against Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents about conversations he had last December with the Russian ambassador at the time.