01:48 - Source: CNN
Removed Mueller FBI agent called Trump 'idiot'

Story highlights

FBI officials' texts have given ammo to critics of special counsel Robert Mueller

The story first came to light two weeks ago

(CNN) —  

On December 1, all eyes in Washington were fixed on former national security adviser Michael Flynn pleading guilty to lying to the FBI. It was another sign that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the presidential election was gaining steam.

Nearly 24 hours later, top officials at the Justice Department had a problem.

Media reports surfaced Saturday morning that two top FBI officials had traded a series of text messages trashing then-presidential candidate Donald Trump and supporting Hillary Clinton.

Later that day, Mueller’s office, in a rare move, was quick to issue a statement addressing the texts – perhaps a recognition of the potential political upheaval brewing.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions directed FBI Director Christopher Wray to make “any necessary changes to his management and investigative teams.”

The head of the House Intelligence Committee threatened top officials at the Justice Department and FBI with contempt of Congress citations, hurling accusations that they’d been less than forthcoming about the text messages.

Defenders of the President, in search of any avenues to discredit, diminish and distract from Mueller’s work on the Russia investigation, have now focused their gaze directly inside the Justice Department and FBI, pouncing on newly perceived vulnerabilities that have bubbled up within a striking two-week span.

Who is Peter Strzok?

Until two weeks ago, Peter Strzok was not a household name outside the counterintelligence field, but within the FBI he’s considered one of the bureau’s top experts on Russia.

Strzok had played a lead role in the investigation into Clinton’s private email server and was involved in the FBI’s recommendation that no criminal charges be filed against the former secretary of state. He later helped oversee the beginnings of the probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

CNN reported in mid-July that Strzok had joined Mueller’s team, but his time there was short-lived. He was removed after Mueller learned on July 27 about a stockpile of text messages exchanged between Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page through November 2016 in which the pair dreaded Trump winning the election. The texts were uncovered as part of a separate internal investigation looking into the FBI’s actions leading up to the 2016 election. That investigation is ongoing.

People who worked with Strzok describe him as a seasoned agent who never allowed political opinions to influence his work. His role as a leader in the Clinton email investigation was overseen by top FBI officials, some with Republican political leanings, and the prosecutors in Alexandria, Virginia, who helped oversee the investigation included Republicans, according to current and former officials close to the matter.

Strzok’s role in the Trump-Russia probe also doesn’t fit the portrayal by Republican critics, these officials say. CNN has reported that FBI counterintelligence agents who interviewed Flynn initially weren’t in favor of pursuing charges against him for lying in his interview with the FBI in January about conversations he had with Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s former ambassador to the US.

Strzok was among those who didn’t view Flynn’s answers as purposely false statements, the officials said.

An attorney for Strzok did not respond to a request for comment. Page could not be reached for comment.

The Justice Department and the special counsel’s office declined to comment for this story.

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Texts go to Congress

Various congressional investigators spent days clamoring to see the text messages for themselves and, in an unexpected move, the Justice Department rapidly turned over a set of roughly 375 texts to lawmakers on December 12 – the eve of a key congressional hearing – noting the “extraordinary accommodation” of releasing them in the midst of an internal investigation.

Reports detailing the extent of Strzok and Page’s dislike for Trump soon popped up from every major news outlet – priming the pump for a narrative that loomed over an oversight hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.