It’s time for the country to hear from FBI agent Peter Strzok.
The Justice Department inspector general’s report on the FBI’s handling of the Clinton email investigation criticized Strzok, who worked on that investigation and also on the FBI probe of Russian interference with the 2016 election. The report says Strzok muddied the credibility of the Clinton case by exchanging anti-Trump text messages with his girlfriend, then-FBI attorney Lisa Page. He testified in a closed session before the House Oversight and Judiciary committees on Wednesday.
The president and his supporters argue that Strzok’s early involvement in the Russia probe taints the entire investigation. On Thursday Trump tweeted that Strzok “was given poor marks on yesterday’s closed-door testimony” and that Strzok’s role in the Russia investigation was further evidence of the “witch hunt” against him. But although the president himself had called for Strzok’s testimony to be public, Congress did not agree.
Strzok certainly doesn’t act like someone with anything to hide. He offered to testify publicly and without a subpoena. He didn’t take the Fifth or demand immunity. Unlike the president in his dealings with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, Strzok did not haggle for months over the terms or scope of an interview. Nevertheless, Congress first threatened to subpoena himunnecessarily and then chose to keep his testimony under wraps.
Strzok is on the hot seat primarily based on a few dozen text messages out of more than 40,000 that he and Page exchanged on FBI devices. In the most widely reported exchange, Page texted that Trump’s “not ever going to become president, right? Right?!” and Strzok responded, “No. No he won’t. We’ll stop it.”
There’s no question Strzok and Page used poor judgment in exchanging the messages, and they admitted as much to the IG. But they both claim their personal political views did not affect their professional decisions. Strzok told the IG that within the FBI there is a “bright and inviolable line between what you think personally . . . and the conduct of your official business,” and that he never crossed that line.
In today’s hyperpartisan environment, Strzok’s defense may sound hard to believe, but it’s perfectly plausible. As a former prosecutor of public corruption cases, I’ve worked with many FBI agents and prosecutors who had personal political views but did not allow those views to affect their work. That’s an essential part of being a good investigator.
But what about Strzok’s “We’ll stop it” text message? Most have assumed that “we” means the FBI. But it’s at least as likely that Strzok, in a personal message to his girlfriend, was referring to we the voters, or we the American people. That would have been an unremarkable sentiment shared by about half the people in the country, who could not believe that Trump would ever be elected. It’s quite a leap to go from that text message to a claim that Strzok tried to use his official powers to tip the election.