Much of what is now known about the pro-Clinton and anti-Trump bias which drove the FBI’s investigations into Hillary Clinton’s email server and the allegations that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians in 2016 comes from text messages exchanged between FBI employ-ees Peter Strzok and Lisa Page.
Many were looking forward to last week’s congressional hearings at which Strzok and Page were separately questioned about the bias that was exposed in their correspondence, and how it impacted the investigations they had been working upon. Both Strzok and Page testified behind closed doors, but FBI attorneys who were present refused to allow them to answer many key questions.
Page reneged on her promise to testify at a public hearing as well, but Strzok did appear last Thursday at a joint public hearing of the House Oversight and Judiciary committees, chaired by Republican congressmen Trey Gowdy and Bob Goodlatte, respectively, which was marked by repeated attempts by Democrats to disrupt the questioning and discredit the entire proceedings.
After watching the House testimony, Trump said that Strzok was “a disgrace to our country” and “a disgrace to the FBI.” During an interview at his resort in Turnberry, Scotland, Trump expressed amazement that Strzok wanted “to do things against me before I was even the candi-date, and then he lied about it.” Trump also dismissed the “excuses” Strzok offered to alter the clear intent of his messages to Page, adding “everybody laughed at it.”
STRZOK’S CENTRAL ROLE
Strzok was a central figure in the Clinton and the Russian collusion investigations. Both of them were affected by his hatred for Trump and his determination to see Clinton elected presi-dent. Some legal experts believe that Strzok’s bias will also fatally compromise any the inde-pendence of the ongoing special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, which is a continua-tion of the Trump-Russia probe which Strzok initiated in July 2016.
Strzok was the Chief of the Counterespionage Section and the lead FBI investigator into Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal email server. He also played a key role in editing the memo of rec-ommendations drawn up by then-FBI director James Comey on the Clinton investigation, in-serting the key language which exonerated her from prosecution on charges of criminal negli-gence for mishandling government documents with classified information.
Strzok was one of the FBI investigators who questioned then-National Security Advisor Mi-chael Flynn, in January 2017, about his phone conversations several weeks earlier with the Rus-sian ambassador to the United States. Flynn later pleaded guilty to charges brought by Mueller that he lied during that FBI interview about the phone calls, which had been monitored by US security officials.
Strzok was involved with the Steele dossier and the investigation into the emails which were stolen from the computers of the Democrat National Committee. He had been transferred to serve as the top investigator for Special Counsel Robert Mueller before he was reassigned due by Mueller due to his anti-Trump bias.
Page worked as a lawyer for the FBI’s former Deputy Director, Andrew McCabe, and leaked, at McCabe’s direction, sensitive information on the FBI’s probe into Hillary Clinton’s charitable foundation to a Wall Street Journal reporter for which McCabe was subsequently fired from the FBI. She also worked briefly for the Mueller investigation.
DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE IG BLOWS THE WHISTLE
In July 2017, Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz discovered Strzok’s correspondence with Page. The thousands of messages they exchanged on FBI-issued cell phones during the 2016 campaign revealed their determination to “stop” Trump from becoming president. Strzok was immediately removed from the Mueller investigation, but the reason for his reassignment and the impact of his political bias on both investigations was not revealed until that December. Strzok remained on duty at FBI headquarters until the IG’s report was published this June. Only then did the FBI tell him that he was being fired and that his security clearance had been revoked.
The IG’s report revealed additional, recently recovered Strzok-Page email exchanges in which the bias was even more explicit. The report acknowledged that the messages created the ap-pearance of impropriety, but IG Horowitz concluded that Strzok’s pro-Clinton bias did not taint the outcome of the FBI’s investigation into her private email server.
The IG argued that there could have been reasonable explanations other than political bias for each of the many questionable decisions which FBI officials made in handling the Clinton probe. Nevertheless, many Republicans remain skeptical, and believe that anyone other than Clinton would have been tried and convicted for what she did.
Horowitz did say that he was more troubled by Strzok’s decision to prioritize the Russian col-lusion probe, which delayed the FBI’s announcement that it was reopening its probe into Clin-ton emails which were found on the laptop of her aide, Huma Abedin, until just eleven days be-fore the November 2016 election.
FBI INVESTIGATIONS WERE AFFECTED BY BIAS
House Republicans have pointed to the Strzok-Page correspondence as the first evidence of the serious bias which had affected the FBI’s conduct of both the Clinton email and Russia investi-gations. Last week’s hearing was the first opportunity the American public had to hear Strzok respond to the accusations of serious professional misconduct against him.
The chaotic hearing lasted for ten hours. It often degenerated into shouting matches and mutual accusations between Republicans and Democrats trying to score political points with the na-tional television audience that was watching. Citing messages that had been exchanged with Page, Congressman Gowdy said that, “Agent Strzok had Hillary Clinton winning the White House before he finished investigating her. . . Agent Strzok had Donald Trump impeached be-fore he even started investigating him. That is bias.”
Citing the same messages, Congressman Goodlatte asked his colleagues to imagine being in-vestigated by someone who “hated you” and “disparaged you in all manner of ways.”
“Would anyone sitting here today believe that this was an acceptable state of affairs, particular-ly at an agency whose motto is ‘Fidelity, Bravery and Integrity’? I think not,” Goodlatte said.
Strzok responded by insisting that although his anti-Trump messages to Page did reflect his personal political beliefs, he was able to “set those aside in vigorous pursuit of the truth — wherever it lies, whatever it is,” and did not allow them to taint the FBI investigation he was leading. Congressman Ted Poe of Texas spoke for his Republican colleagues at the hearing when he told Strzok, “I don’t believe you.”
Democrats were eager to accept Strzok’s explanations. Congressman Steve Cohen of Tennessee portrayed Strzok as the innocent victim of Republican efforts to discredit the Mueller investi-gation. He went so far as to suggest that the FBI agent deserved a Purple Heart medal. Demo-crats at the hearing applauded when Strzok self-righteously portrayed himself as the model of the unbiased FBI agent. He declared, “That is who we are as the FBI, and the suggestion that I, in some dark chamber somewhere in the FBI, would somehow cast aside all of these proce-dures, all of these safeguards, and somehow be able to do this is astounding to me. It simply couldn’t happen.”
STRZOK TRIED TO JUSTIFY HIS BIAS
Strzok claimed that his August 2016 text in which he promised Page “we’ll stop” a Trump can-didacy was a late-night, spontaneous response to Trump’s criticism of Gold Star parents of a dead US serviceman after accused him of anti-Muslim bias at the Democratic National Con-vention. He insisted that his use of the word “we” reflected his belief that the American people would “stop” Trump. “It was in no way — unequivocally — any suggestion that me, the FBI, would take any action whatsoever to improperly impact the electoral process for any candidate. So, I take great offense, and I take great disagreement to your assertion of what that was or wasn’t,” Strzok added.
Flanked by FBI lawyers who were there to shield him from the need to answer embarrassing questions, in his unrepentant opening statement, Strzok dismissed “today’s hearing is just an-other victory notch in Putin’s belt and another milestone in our enemies’ campaign to tear America apart.”
Late in the hearing, under persistent questioning by Republicans, Strzok was permitted by FBI lawyers to offer one new piece of information. He confirmed the widespread suspicion that Jus-tice Department official Bruce Ohr, whose wife was an employee of Fusion GPS, which had been hired by the Clinton campaign to produce the Steele dossier, did give the FBI its work. However, Strzok still insisted that “significant” information aside from the dossier, which he could not disclose, was behind his decision to launch the Russian collusion investigation.
DID STRZOK REVEAL THE RUSSIA PROBE TO THE MEDIA?
Strzok argued that if he had wanted to sabotage Trump’s campaign, he could have leaked the existence of the secret Russian collusion investigation to the media. He claimed credit for the fact that “the thought of exposing that information never crossed my mind.” But that contra-dicts an op-ed which was published by Strzok’s attorney in USA Today which said that “Peter and others” at the FBI “actively ensured that news reports didn’t overplay the seriousness of the investigation.” Those conversations were apparently the source for a New York Times article published just before the 2016 election which stated, “Intelligence officials have said in inter-views over the last six weeks that apparent connections between some of Mr. Trump’s aides and Moscow originally compelled them to open a broad investigation into possible links be-tween the Russian government and the Republican presidential candidate.”
The only reason the New York Times article did not contain more firm evidence of Trump cam-paign collusion with the Russians was the fact that Strzok’s investigation could not find any. That was not for want of trying. Under Strzok’s leadership, the FBI had improperly obtained a FISA surveillance warrant on Trump advisor Carter Page and had placed “confidential inform-ant” Stefan Halper inside the campaign to entrap unsuspecting Trump supporters into revealing their alleged collusion with the Russians.
STRZOK GRILLED BY GOWDY
Congressman Gowdy, a former South Carolina prosecutor, asked the most penetrating ques-tions of Strzok at the public hearing. He methodically built a case that the timing of Strzok’s messages to Page proves that the FBI agent had made up his mind that Trump was guilty of col-lusion long before his investigation had generated any evidence to support that conclusion.
“The FBI investigation into potential Russia collusion with the Trump campaign began on July 31, 2016,” Gowdy began. “You drafted the originating document. . . You were the point of con-tact on the originating document. And the FBI has represented to Congress that nothing from an investigative standpoint with respect to Russian collusion and the Trump campaign began be-fore July 31, 2016.
“But 10 days before the investigation even began. . . you said ‘Trump is a disaster. I have no idea how destabilizing his presidency would be.’”
At that point, Strzok turned to the FBI lawyers and asked them to run interference so that he would not have to answer Gowdy’s very specific questions. Democrat Congressman Jerrold Nadler of New York then jumped in and tried to used parliamentary procedure to defend Strzok’s right to evade Gowdy’s questions. When Chairman Goodlatte ruled Nadler’s objection out of order, Nadler continued trying to make his point. Goodlatte then warned Strzok, “Please be advised that you can either comply with the committee’s directive to answer the question or refuse to do so. The latter of which will place you at risk of a contempt citation and potential criminal liability.”
After that interruption, Gowdy returned to his original line of questioning. He circumvented Strzok’s refusal to answer his questions about when the first witness interviews were held in the FBI’s Russian collusion investigation by referring to the FBI’s written record, which he had looked up.
“The first interview that I could find is on August 11 of 2016, which is 11 days after it began.
“Which makes me wonder, on August 6. . . you drafted a document. . . before you’ve inter-viewed a single solitary witness [cursing] Trump. Then that same day, your colleague, Lisa Page, wrote, ‘maybe you’re meant to protect the country from that menace.’
“And you responded, ‘I can protect the country at many levels.’ We’re not even a week into an investigation that you originated. . . and you’re already promising to protect the country from that menace, Donald Trump.
“And then, on August 8, you still hadn’t interviewed anyone. You’re eight days into your Rus-sian collusion with the Trump campaign investigation, and you’ve got another text from your colleague, Lisa Page.”
PINNING DOWN STRZOK’S MESSAGE WORD BY WORD
“‘Trump’s not ever going to become president, right? Right?’ And you replied, ‘No. No, he’s not. We’ll stop it.’”
At that point, Strzok again tried to deflect Gowdy’s questions designed to pin down exactly what the FBI agent had meant in those messages, word by word.
“Here’s what I want to know,” Gowdy demanded. “Who is the ‘he’ in ‘he’s not’?”
Strzok answered, “‘He’ is then-Candidate Trump.”
Gowdy continued, “What and who did you mean by ‘it’?”
After some more attempts to dodge the issue, Srtzok replied, “‘It’ would be his candidacy for president.”
Gowdy then got to his point. “The will is the [will of the] American people, is that right? That’s your testimony. The ‘we’ll stop it.’ You were speaking on behalf of the American people, is that correct?”
Strzok then claimed that he did not recall writing that particular text message, but to no avail.
Gowdy replied by noting, “Your testimony a couple weeks ago was the ‘we’ meant the Ameri-can people, which I found confusing. Because on November 7, which is the day before the elec-tion, you said this.
“You were concerned that those same American people that you were speaking on behalf of might actually elect Donald Trump president. So, you said, ‘OMG, this is… terrifying.’
“What was terrifying about those same American people you trusted to stop him in August not stopping him in November? What was so terrifying about that, Agent Strzok?”
Gowdy cited a message which Strzok sent to Page in March 2016, while the primaries were still in progress, in which he said, “Hillary should win 100 million to 0.”
Gowdy asked Strzok, “In March 2016, weren’t you investigating her for potential mishandling of classified information?”
Given the fact that most of the witnesses in that case had not yet been interviewed, Gowdy asked the FBI agent, “Why wouldn’t you wait until the investigation was over before you have her, the nominee, and winning a general election against an opponent that hadn’t even been named yet, 100 million to 0, Agent Strzok?
“NO WONDER BOB MUELLER KICKED YOU OFF THE INVESTIGATION”
Then Gowdy asked Strzok about what happened on May 17, 2017.
“Bob Mueller is appointed. Your friend, Jim Comey has been fired. He’s already leaked the memos to his law professor friend, and Mueller is special counsel. Do you remember how long it took for you to start talking about impeachment after Bob Mueller was appointed?
“One day – and you were talking about impeachment. And for anyone who may have missed it, the day after his appointment, Agent Strzok, you did it again five days later. Now, how many interviews had you done as part of the special counsel team within the first five days of his ap-pointment?
“The answer is also the same. It’s zero. No interviews have been done.
“No interviews had been done by August 8 , when you’re talking about stopping him and how terrifying it would be for him to win, and how you can protect the country.
“And no interviews had been done before you’re talking about impeachment of the president [in 2017]. No wonder Bob Mueller kicked you off of the investigation, Agent Strzok.”
INSULTING THE TRUMP SUPPORTERS IN VIRGINIA
Chairman Goodlatte picked up on the issue of Strzok’s bias that Gowdy had raised. “Your texts and emails make it appear you had come to a conclusion on the Clinton case long before you had interviewed many witnesses, including Clinton herself. You also appear to have been opin-ing for the impeachment of President Trump at the very beginnings of the Russia case,” the Virginia Republican said. He asked Strzok whether he had violated normal FBI procedures by reaching such conclusions so early in his investigations. Strzok insisted that he had “separated out my personal beliefs” about Trump “from any action I took officially as an FBI agent.”
Goodlatte seemed to be more disturbed by one of Strzok’s text messages “that hits home for me. On August 26, 2016, you texted Ms. Page, ‘Just went to a southern Virginia Walmart. I could smell the Trump support.’ And smell is in capital letters. What does ‘Trump support’ smell like, Mr. Strzok?”
When Strzok admitted that he had made “a quick choice of words,” Goodlatte asked him whether he meant his comment in a text to Page about another part of northern Virginia, Loudon County, which Strzok said is populated by “still ignorant hillbillies.”
Goodlatte was implying that Strzok and Page share Hillary Clinton’s smug sense of superiority over Americans who supported Trump, when she demeaned them in a campaign speech to a liberal audience as mostly being bigoted “deplorables.” When Goodlatte asked Strzok “do you understand the implications of this text when my constituents in Virginia read it?”, the FBI agent was, for once, clearly embarrassed. “I do, sir,” Strzok answered. “I would ask you to tell them that was, certainly, [an] unfortunate use of words.”
LATEST INDICTMENT REVEALS NO EVIDENCE COLLUSION
Today, more than a year and a half after Mueller took over the FBI’s Russia investigation that Strzok initiated, the probe continues, but it has yet to find any evidence of Trump campaign collusion with the Russians. The indictment which Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced last week of 12 Russian military officers for hacking the computers of the DNC was accompanied by a statement which seems to exonerate the Trump campaign of colluding with the Russian hacking efforts. The indictment, Rosenstein said, contains “no allegation … that any American citizen committed a crime” or that Russia’s hacking “changed the vote count” or affected the final outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
In that respect, last week’s indictment is similar to the one which Mueller handed down in Feb-ruary accusing 13 Russians, based in St. Petersburg, for actively interfering with the 2016 elec-tion by spreading false information on the internet and through social media. At that time, both Mueller and Rosenstein noted evidence of “unwitting” online communications between cam-paign operatives for both sides and Russian agents using false identities, and that same kind of evidence is contained in the new indictments. But since there is no evidence that the Trump campaign associates involved knew that Russians were on the other end of the conversation, it does not amount to collusion.
SETTLING SOME OPEN QUESTIONS
The new indictment does settle some points of dispute about what happened during the 2016 presidential campaign. It establishes that the online source of sensitive political information, who called himself Guccifer 2.0, was, in fact, a false identity created by Russian military hack-ers. But that does not mean that the reporters who requested information from Guccifer 2.0, or Trump supporter Roger Stone who maintained a dialog with the entity online, violated any laws. The report also said that the Russians used a private organization – which is not named, but sounds very much like Wikileaks – to time the release of the hacked documents to have maximum political impact on the campaign.
House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes claims that the main points in the new indictment had already been revealed in the report his committee issued on “Russian Active Measures” in April. The report was dismissed at that time by Democrats as a Republican at-tempt to whitewash the alleged collusion by the Trump campaign. In addition, many of the de-tails the House report contained about the Russian attempt to subvert the election were cen-sored by the US intelligence community before it was released.
But the main points of the latest Mueller indictment were all there, including the conclusion that 12 Russian military agents hacked the DNC and Clinton campaign computers, and then dis-tributed the stolen information via Wikileaks and other online sources. According to Nunes, “If you didn’t have the redactions, you’d get more than what’s in the indictment, except for the Russian names.” Nunes also told Fox News’ Maria Bartiromo that his committee has known about the basics of the Russian operation since mid-2017, which raises the question of why Mueller waited so long to issue last week’s indictments.
Some have questioned the timing of the new indictment. They suggest it was intended to serve as a reminder to Trump, while he was preparing to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, to press him harder to halt Russia’s cyber-attacks on the US and its allies.
As we saw during his press conference with Putin in Helsinki, Trump still questions whether Russia tried to interfere in the 2016 election on his behalf, for fear that doing so would under-mine the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency. He is keenly aware that the “Resistance” move-ment is seeking any excuse to impeach him or otherwise undermine his authority.
TRUMP STILL CONDEMNS THE “WITCH HUNT”
When Trump calls the Mueller investigation a “witch hunt,” he is referring specifically to the special counsel’s efforts to find evidence that members of his campaign were criminally in-volved with Russian efforts to affect the outcome of the 2016 election, or that his firing of James Comey was an effort on his part to cover up such evidence. In fact, after 14 months of intensive investigation, Mueller and his team of “13 Angry Democrats,” as Trump likes to call them, have found no such evidence. The members of the Trump campaign team and inner circle who have been ensnared in the special counsel’s net so far are being accused of old or peripher-al crimes, such as money laundering or lying to investigators, which are unconnected to the 2016 campaign and the Russians.
Trump’s efforts, aided by the findings of Republicans in the House, have cast serious doubt on the impartiality and need for the Mueller investigation. The longer it goes on, the more credible the calls become from Trump and his legal spokesman, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, to put an end to the Mueller investigation. Trump is understandably reluctant to do anything, such as agreeing to an interview with the special counsel, or issue orders to the Jus-tice Department to release all of the relevant documents to the public, that might provide his opponents with new arguments to keep the probe going.
Mueller’s jailing of Paul Manafort, his raid on the offices of Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, and the indefinite extension of a sentencing date for Michael Flynn can be seen as acts of desperation by a prosecutor who still does not have enough evidence to fulfill his primary mandate: to bring election-related charges of collusion with the Russians against a senior member of Trump’s campaign team, or write a convincing report calling upon Congress to re-move Trump from office on that same basis.
ROSENSTEIN HINTS AT MORE REVELATIONS TO COME
Rosenstein dropped a broad hint last week that the Mueller investigation could still move in an unexpected direction, even at this late date. “I want to caution you,” the assistant attorney gen-eral said, “that people who speculate about federal investigations usually don’t know all of the relevant facts. We do not try cases on television or in congressional hearings.”
Rosenstein oversees the Russian collusion investigation because Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from it early last year. Trump has said that he would have not chosen Sessions as attorney general if he had known that he would recuse himself. Rosenstein, as the number two official of the Justice Department, inherited oversight responsibility from Sessions, and appointed Mueller to take over the investigation following the uproar over Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey last May.
Rosenstein is currently under criticism from a group of Republicans led by House Freedom Caucus chairman Mark Meadows and fellow conservative Jim Jordan. They accuse Rosenstein of refusing to turn over FBI and Justice Department documents that would prove allegation of anti-Trump bias behind the launching of the probe into Russian collusion. Rosenstein has re-sponded to the criticism by assuring lawmakers that he is expediting Department of Justice ef-forts to fulfill their document requests.
House Speaker Paul Ryan supported a Republican measure last month which criticized Rosen-stein for being unresponsive to Congressional requests for FBI documents, but Congressman Gowdy denied there is sufficient justification to oust Rosenstein. “Impeach him for what?” Gowdy asked in a CBS interview. Gowdy said Rosenstein is a “Trump appointee” and that if “President Trump is dissatisfied with Rod Rosenstein, he can fire him with a tweet.”
That is unlikely. Trump has been warned for months that he would face an outcry by lawmakers from both parties if he were to try to fire Rosenstein or Mueller while the special counsel in-vestigation is still ongoing.
At this point, it appears that Trump is resigned to let the Mueller investigation run its course and allow public interest along with expectations that it will produce smoking gun evidence of collusion to continue fading away.