DAVID GREENE, HOST:
President Trump said yesterday that he would be game to sit down with special counsel Robert Mueller. This comes after Trump has criticized the investigation into Russian election interference, calling it a hoax, also bad for the country. Trump's Republican allies, meanwhile, have raised doubts, not just about the special counsel, but more broadly about the Justice Department and the FBI, alleging that there is a bias - and among them, Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson, who has focused on anti-Trump text messages exchanged by two members of the FBI. There are several months' worth of texts missing. The FBI has blamed this on a technical issue. Senator Johnson, who chairs the Senate Homeland Security Committee, joins us this morning.
RON JOHNSON: Morning, David.
GREENE: So what worries you about these text messages?
R. JOHNSON: Well, I've been involved, really, in this investigation for almost three years now, starting with the revelation that Hillary Clinton was using private server. And that's really my involvement in this. My committee has jurisdiction over federal records. This is serious business, you know?
I do believe that Hillary Clinton broke the law in using that server, and let me just quick quote law. Whoever having lawful possession or control of any document relating to the national defense through gross negligence permits the same to be removed from its proper place of custody shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 10 years. That's...
GREENE: But what does this have to do with the text messages we're talking about, though?
R. JOHNSON: So it - this is - all springs from that. Director Comey really conducted a sham investigation into that email scandal. And the doctoring of the memo that he was writing two months before he exonerated her - I mean, that was not an investigation designed to uncover the truth leading to a prosecution. It was, really, in hindsight, when you take a look at all the evidence, a investigation designed to cover up the truth and exonerate Hillary Clinton.
GREENE: But if you don't mind, Senator, I don't want to have you litigate Hillary Clinton's email situation here. I just - I...
R. JOHNSON: Well, again, it all springs from that.
GREENE: Sure. Sure.
R. JOHNSON: ...Because we got the text when the Office of Inspector General was undertaking investigation of Director Comey's conduct in the email investigation. So people lose context in terms of what this all springs - you know, came from. And so now we have these texts - completely unvarnished inside view at the top levels within the FBI showing an unbelievable level of bias, first of all, but also some pretty concerning certain phrases. You know...
GREENE: Well, you - I want to ask you about one of the...
R. JOHNSON: We can't take that risk. It's like a life insurance policy. And the latest batch - and, again, this is the one that is making more news.
R. JOHNSON: The latest batch is - when they're mulling over whether they should really join the Mueller investigation, Strzok, who, again, was the deputy assistant director of the Counterintelligence Division - he was probably investigating the Russian connection - deciding whether or not he wants to join the Mueller investigation, says, I hesitate in part because of my gut sense and concern there's no big there there. OK.
GREENE: OK. Well, you also focused on two words from one of the texts, which was a secret society in the texts, and you...
R. JOHNSON: You know, I didn't. Other people brought that up.
GREENE: You suggested this could - this might mean a secret group within the FBI holding meetings off-site. And you went on to say, this could mean corruption at the highest levels of the FBI.
R. JOHNSON: Well, I think...
GREENE: There is talk now that reference may have been a joke. I'm just wondering if you feel you might have jumped to conclusions here.
R. JOHNSON: No. All I was connecting was, we - you know, I have all kinds of people come in our - to our - in front of our committee, giving us information. And I had heard that there were off-site meetings. And so I was just connecting the dots there. It could be a joke. Those off-site meetings could be completely harmless. You know, (unintelligible).
GREENE: Is there a campaign here by Republicans to discredit the FBI, to discredit Mueller? Is that what's going on here?
R. JOHNSON: Certainly not on my part. My part, again - my involvement goes back three years. And the sham investigation into what I believe was a crime by Secretary Clinton - by the way, another pretty important piece of information came out of the last batch of texts is that now we know from these texts that President Obama received a text or a email from Clinton from the territory of a sophisticated adversary.
GREENE: OK, Senator, I apologize. I just - we don't have the time this morning to go back in history.
R. JOHNSON: Well, I understand. I know. And that's - there's the problem with how these things work.
GREENE: I just - let me just ask you the bottom line. Do you have full confidence in Mueller and whatever he concludes?
R. JOHNSON: Yeah, listen, he's probably perfectly qualified for his investigation, but now that this thing has expanded into possible - you know, for sure bias, possible corruption at the highest levels of the FBI, he would not be qualified to investigate that. He's just too close. He has too many conflicts of interest. Somebody needs to take it...
GREENE: But what about the Russia investigation? Do you have confidence in that?
R. JOHNSON: Yes, but I really do believe the intelligence committees - both the House and Senate - I would've liked to seen them complete their work before a special counsel ever would've been appointed because I have the exact same experience. Once a criminal investigation began on the Hillary Clinton email scandal, my own committee investigation was really frustrated. We were given, you know, diddly squat in terms of information. And now it's all coming out.
GREENE: Let me just...
R. JOHNSON: Now we're starting to learn a whole lot more than we should've learned way back in 2015 and 2016.
GREENE: We just have a little time left, Senator. I just wonder, is - do you worry that some of the messaging right now about the FBI, alleging corruption, alleging scandals as big as Watergate could undermine confidence in the FBI, which is, you know, at the front lines of fighting terrorism?
R. JOHNSON: Yeah, I know. Listen, I want to make sure that the FBI is beyond reproach in terms of integrity. The only way that they restore their integrity is if we get to the bottom of this. And we need transparency here, and that's all I'm trying to provide. I'm trying to get to the bottom of this, find out if there is corruption, get - root it out and restore the credibility to these premier law enforcement agencies that do need to have the respect of the public.
GREENE: Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, thanks a lot. We appreciate it this morning.
R. JOHNSON: Have a good day.
GREENE: And NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is here with us.
And Carrie, what struck you from that conversation?
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Well, it's pretty remarkable that President Trump has been tweeting, beating up and attacking the FBI - these two FBI personnel for exchanging text messages. It's become a cause for Senator Ron Johnson and others, whereas, you know, there are people like Senator Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina who leads the Senate Intelligence Committee. He says that this - these missing texts appear to be just a technical glitch. He's taking the FBI at his word.
The concern within the FBI and within the Justice Department, David, is that some of this messaging is causing the public to lose faith in them and their work on criminal investigations, public corruption, the next time - God forbid - a terrorist attack occurs, and that this kind of messaging could be doing permanent damage and undermining confidence in the bureau and the Justice Department moving forward by a political party - the Republicans - which have, in the past, been very vocal in supporting law and order.
GREENE: All right, NPR's Carrie Johnson. Thanks, Carrie. We appreciate it.
C. JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.