WASHINGTON - Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading the investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election, received a strong vote of confidence Wednesday from the Justice Department official who appointed him and oversees his work.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller in May after President Donald Trump fired then-FBI director James Comey, dismissed Republican criticism that the special counsel's team has become compromised by anti-Trump partisans.
"We'll ensure that no bias is reflected in any of the actions taken by the special counsel or in any matter within the jurisdictions of the Department of Justice," Rosenstein told members of the House Judiciary Committee.
Rosenstein appointed Mueller after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the probe because he'd served as an adviser to Trump's presidential campaign.
Rosenstein heaped praise on Mueller, a highly respected former federal prosecutor and FBI director, saying he was "the ideal choice" to lead the investigation that has consumed much of Trump's year in office.
"It would be difficult for anyone to find someone more qualified for this job," Rosenstein said.
Rosenstein's comments came a day after the Justice Department released hundreds of text messages that were exchanged between two former members of Mueller's team.
President Trump and Republicans have seized on the text exchanges between FBI Special Agent Peter Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page not only to question the impartiality of the special counsel's investigation, but to attack the Justice Department and the FBI's credibility.
Strzok was removed from the team in July after Mueller learned of the text messages, and Page left two months later.
Among the 375 messages released Tuesday was an exchange that occurred on March 4, 2016. Page described Trump as a "loathsome human" and Strzok responded, "Yet he may win [the presidential election]." After Strzok asked if she believed Trump would be a worse president than fellow Republican Ted Cruz, Page responded, "Yes, I think so."
Page and Strzok also sent derogatory comments about Democratic officials, including presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and former Attorney General Eric Holder.
While Strzok texted in August 2016, "I am worried about what Trump is encouraging in our behavior," he also wrote, "I'm worried about what happens if HRC [Hillary Rodham Clinton] is elected."
Andrew Weissmann, another senior lawyer serving on Mueller's team, also is accused of airing anti-Trump views. Weissmann and eight other members of the Mueller investigation team reportedly have made campaign donations to Democratic candidates, while none has donated to a Republican campaign.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte said he was troubled by the revelations, saying the text messages between Strzok and Page showed "extreme bias" against Trump.
"These text messages prove what we all suspected: High-ranking FBI officials involved in the Clinton investigation were personally invested in the outcome of the election, and clearly let their strong political opinions cloud their professional judgment," said Goodlatte.
Asked about the campaign donations by Mueller's team members, Rosenstein countered that they were entitled to personal political opinions.
"We recognize employees have political opinions," Rosenstein said. "It's our responsibility to make sure those opinions do not influence their actions."
Republican members of the House judiciary panel have called on the Justice Department to appoint a second special counsel to look into allegations involving the handling of the Clinton email investigation. Rosenstein was noncommittal, saying the question currently is the subject of an investigation by the Justice Department's inspector general that will conclude over the next couple of months.
The special counsel's mandate allows Mueller to investigate allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, along with any matters that arise from the investigation.
Rosenstein declined to say whether he has authorized an expansion of the mandate, saying Mueller has "received my permission where there is ambiguity" in the order.
"I know what he's investigating," he said.
Rosenstein said the probe mandate also allows the special counsel to investigate obstruction of justice related to the investigation.
The investigation has led to criminal charges against four Trump campaign associates, including former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Trump's criticism of the special counsel has fueled fear that the president will fire Mueller. Trump has denied he wants to fire Mueller, but Democrats in Congress have pushed for legislation protecting Mueller from being fired.
Democrats sought reassurance from Rosenstein that he'd not dismiss Mueller under pressure from the White House.
"Have you seen good cause to fire Mr. Mueller?" asked Representative Jerry Nadler, the ranking Democrat on the committee.
"No," Rosenstein responded.