A top Justice Department official clarified to Congress on Wednesday that all federal employees, even those investigating Donald Trump’s campaign for president and any involvement of the Russian government in meddling with the 2016 election, are entitled to their political views and the expression of those views does not disqualify them from conducting their jobs effectively.
The statements from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein came as Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee consistently sounded the alarm over private text messages that showed several members of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s staff were critical of President Trump, as well as political contributions they have made. Rosenstein said it would have been a violation of federal prohibited personnel practices to consider the political affiliation of applicants for any Justice position.
“One of the advantages I bring to the job is having been in and around the department for a while and I’ve seen mistakes that have been made in the past and that is precisely one of the issues I’ve discussed with our political appointees, that we’re not going to do that,” Rosenstein said. “That we’re not going to improperly consider political affiliation with regard to career employment.”
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Rosenstein said Mueller has brought to his team both career Justice staff and outside attorneys. Employees from both of those groups are protected by the merit system principles under the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act, he explained. The first two rules under those guidelines state that “selection and advancement” for federal positions “should be determined solely on the basis of relative ability, knowledge and skills” and “without regard to political affiliation.”
Republicans continued to press Rosenstein on the alleged conflicts of interest in the Mueller probe, saying the fact that the investigators admitted opposition to Trump or support for Hillary Clinton disqualified them from fairly serving on the special counsel. Several lawmakers called for Justice to initiate a second special counsel to investigate the existing one. Rosenstein maintained that political views do not inherently create a conflict.
“We recognize we have employees with political opinions,” he said. “It is our to responsibility to make sure those opinions do not influence their actions.”
The deputy attorney general said he was “certain” that some FBI agents hold conservative views, but he had never counted to determine whether a majority are right-leaning. He confirmed that many federal prosecutors have made political donations and that in no way jeopardized any convictions they obtained. Still, Mueller has removed at least one investigator from his team for his anti-Trump comments. The Justice inspector general is currently investigating potential further impropriety.
Walter Shaub, the former top ethics watchdog for federal employees who resigned earlier this year out of protest for what he perceived as the Trump administration’s disregard for ethics laws, on Wednesday criticized Republicans for their lines of attack against the Justice workforce. The former director of the Office of Government Ethics said the Hatch Act, which places restrictions on the political views federal workers can publicize when acting in an official capacity, actually encourages feds to engage in the political process, “including by donating and commenting.”
This is not the first time Justice has come under fire for alleged improper political hiring. In 2008, the department’s inspector general found Justice under the George W. Bush administration illegally screened applicants to favor Republicans.
Earlier this year, a group of conservative politicians and advocacy groups wrote a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions accusing the career staff at Justice’s Civil Rights Division of political bias, saying that during the Obama administration “entrenched federal bureaucrats jettisoned precepts like equal enforcement in favor of political and racialized dogmas.” That prompted a coalition of progressive groups to write Sessions a letter of their own, saying the division’s career staff “must not be politicized by the incoming Justice Department political appointees...and must be free to pursue the division’s mission without inappropriate political interference.”
On Wednesday, Rosenstein stressed his sole focus is making sure his employees do their jobs, not to determine where their affiliations lie.
“My employees, I believe, are proud to work for the Department of Justice,” Rosenstein said. “Some of them support a particular president, some of them don’t. As long as they do their job appropriately, that’s my concern.”