Originally posted at New York Times by Michael S. Schmidt, Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman.
WASHINGTON — The special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, removed a top F.B.I. agent this summer from his investigation into Russian election meddling after the Justice Department’s inspector general began examining whether the agent had sent text messages that expressed anti-Trump political views, according to three people briefed on the matter.
The agent, Peter Strzok, is considered one of the most experienced and trusted F.B.I. counterintelligence investigators. He helped lead the investigation into whether Hillary Clinton had mishandled classified information on her private email account, and then played a major role in the investigation into links between President Trump’s campaign and Russia.
But Mr. Strzok was reassigned this summer from Mr. Mueller’s investigation to the F.B.I.’s human resources department, where he has been stationed since. The people briefed on the case said the transfer followed the discovery of text messages in which Mr. Strzok and a colleague reacted to news events, like presidential debates, in ways that could appear critical of Mr. Trump.
“Immediately upon learning of the allegations, the special counsel’s office removed Peter Strzok from the investigation,” said a spokesman for the special counsel’s office, Peter Carr.
The inspector general’s office at the Justice Department said that as part of a larger inquiry it was conducting into how the F.B.I. had handled investigations related to the 2016 election, the office was “reviewing allegations involving communications between certain individuals, and will report its findings regarding those allegations promptly upon completion of the review of them.”
A lawyer for Mr. Strzok did not return several messages seeking comment. A spokeswoman for the Justice Department said that “we are aware of the allegation and are taking any and all appropriate steps.” ABC News reported in August that Mr. Strzok had left the investigation, but the reason for the move was unclear at the time.
Mr. Strzok’s reassignment shows that Mr. Mueller moved swiftly in the face of what could be perceived as bias by one of his agents amid a politically charged inquiry into Mr. Trump’s campaign and administration. But the existence of the text messages is likely to fuel claims by Mr. Trump that he is the target of a witch hunt.
The discovery of the text messages came at a crucial moment in Mr. Mueller’s investigation. At the time, Mr. Mueller was ramping up his inquiry into Mr. Trump’s former advisers, while also coming under criticism for putting many donors to Democratic candidates on his team. Some conservatives encouraged Mr. Trump to fire Mr. Mueller, saying the investigation was tainted. Mr. Trump seriously entertained the idea but ultimately backed down.
It is not clear what Mr. Strzok said in his text messages. F.B.I. regulations allow agents to express opinions “as an individual privately and publicly on political subjects and candidates.”
Current and former law enforcement officials who worked with Mr. Strzok said they had never seen any evidence that he allowed his political views to influence the investigations he led. They said that Mr. Strzok, a former Army officer, was deeply trusted by James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, and that he would probably have become one of the bureau’s top officials had the questions not been raised about his text messages.
The inquiry into Mr. Strzok is being conducted by the Justice Department’s inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, who is leading a broad examination of how the F.B.I. handled the Clinton email investigation. It is not clear whether Mr. Horowitz will make the text messages public as part of his report in the inquiry. Mr. Horowitz, who announced the beginning of his investigation in January, declined to characterize his findings but said that he hoped to have a copy of his report released by March or April.
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