WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who oversees the Federal Bureau of Investigation, on Friday offered a tepid endorsement of the nation’s leading law enforcement agency, which has been under attack by President Donald Trump and other Republicans.
Trump said earlier this month that the FBI’s reputation was in “tatters” after news came to light that an FBI agent on a team investigating links between Russia and Trump’s election campaign had exchanged anti-Trump text messages with an FBI lawyer.
Sessions on Friday defended the bureau, which is part of the Department of Justice that he leads, but it was not an enthusiastic endorsement.
“I don’t share the view that the FBI is not functioning at a high level all over the country,” he told a news conference.
Sessions’ comments came at a time when former FBI director Robert Mueller is leading an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
A sampling of texts between agent Peter Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page was released to Congress and the media earlier this week. The two referred to Trump as an “idiot,” but also took aim at other politicians, including Democrat Hillary Clinton, who lost to Trump in the 2016 election, and independent Bernie Sanders, who had sought the Democratic nomination for president.
Strzok was transferred off Mueller’s team, but the texts provided fresh fodder for some Republicans who have fiercely criticized Mueller in a move that Democrats say is an effort to discredit his Russia investigation.
Russia has denied meddling in the 2016 election, and Trump has repeatedly said his campaign did not collude with Russia.
Sessions is the latest senior official to defend the FBI. His comments were much milder than those of FBI Director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in recent testimony to Congress.
Sessions said Trump does support the FBI and noted that Trump spoke earlier on Friday to a class of domestic and international law enforcement managers graduating from an FBI training program in Quantico, Virginia.
However, the audience did not consist of FBI agents, and Trump’s speech was to local and state police officers.
Sessions also ducked a question about whether he will appoint a second special counsel to investigate some of the bias allegations against Mueller’s team, as some Republicans have demanded.
Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Eric Walsh; editing by Mohammad Zargham and Leslie Adler