It turns out that the FBI agent who many conservatives believe secretly plotted to take down President Donald Trump may have actually helped get the president elected.
CNN has obtained emails that show that FBI agent Peter Strzok co-wrote the first draft of the letter that then-FBI Director James Comey sent to Congress in October 2016, announcing that the bureau was reopening an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. That letter set off a political firestorm just 11 days before the presidential election and hurt Clinton at the polls — so much so that it may have swung the election in favor of Trump.
This development potentially throws a wrench in conservative theories that Strzok sought to undermine Trump in the run-up to the election, and that special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation is tainted by anti-Trump bias.
Back in December, the New York Times reported that Mueller had dismissed Strzok from his investigative team last summer because the agent had sent dozens of text messages critical of Donald Trump to a colleague during the 2016 election season. It’s unclear if he violated any FBI rules, but Mueller removed him to ensure the investigation was free from accusations of partisan bias, according to the Times.
A few days later, CNN reported that Strzok, who also led the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton's private email server, changed how Comey was to describe Clinton’s behavior from “grossly negligent” to “extremely careless” in a draft of a major public statement Comey made in July 2016. That change had the effect of softening Comey’s criticism of Clinton at a particularly sensitive time in the 2016 campaign, and may have made her less vulnerable to criminal charges.
Trump and conservative media figures seized on Mueller’s dismissal of Strzok from the Russia investigation and painted it as a shady maneuver intended to cover up partisan bias. And Strzok’s role in softening the language on Clinton’s misconduct, in addition to his text messages — which the FBI lost track of at one point due to a technical glitch — were interpreted by Republicans as a sign that Strzok was conspiring to tip the election in favor of Clinton.
But CNN’s new report makes that theory, which was already problematic for a number of reasons, weaker. And according to a source familiar with Strzok’s thinking, CNN reports, the former FBI agent not only drafted the letter about reopening Clinton’s email server investigation, but also supported reopening the investigation.
One point to keep in mind is that it’s unclear if Strzok knew that the letter would be made public. According to two of CNN’s sources, Strzok did “harbor reservations about Comey making a public announcement just days before the election and sent a text message to that effect.” But if he did know it was going to become public or could become public, he would’ve known that it could hurt Clinton’s chances at winning the election.
In short, the image of Strzok that emerges after this new report is not that of an anti-Trump zealot, but rather, a government employee who may have been willing to work on and support projects that could undermine his preferred political outcomes.
Strzok has been the target of conservative attacks
In recent months, conservatives have mounted two separate attacks against Strzok. He first came under fire for his role in softening the language Comey used in his July 2016 public comments recommending that prosecutors not bring criminal charges against Clinton.
Speaking to reporters, Comey said that Clinton’s use of her private email server had been “extremely careless,” but congressional investigators later uncovered an earlier draft of his comments in which Comey had planned to use the phrase “grossly negligent.”
Strzok changed the language in June 2016, and the wording change had potentially significant legal implications. As CNN has reported, federal laws governing the handling and treatment of classified materials can potentially carry criminal penalties for “gross negligence.”
The other major conservative attack against Strzok stems from the fact that he was ejected from Mueller’s team after the Justice Department’s inspector general started looking into texts he sent to his colleague Lisa Page, an FBI lawyer, that were critical of Trump.
The messages were sent throughout the 2016 presidential campaign season and included comments that were critical of Trump. Strzok was reassigned to the human resources department of the FBI, where he is now posted.
It was probably smart of Mueller to remove the FBI agent
Even before the latest CNN report, there was reason to be skeptical of conservative theories about the Strzok controversy.
When Mueller removed the FBI agent from the Russia probe, this provided ammunition for Trump supporters who believe that the investigation was a “witch hunt” designed to take down the president. But government ethics experts said that Mueller’s swift removal of Strzok actually boosted its credibility.
“The fact that Robert Mueller fired an investigator immediately when these texts came to light is evidence he’s running a tight ship and lends credibility to his investigation — not detracts from it,” Lisa Gilbert, an expert on government ethics at the watchdog group Public Citizen, told me in a December interview.
And when it came to changing Comey’s statement to say that Clinton had acted carelessly instead of negligently, Strzok wasn’t acting alone. According to CNN, the memo drafting process was a “team effort” and a “handful of people” reviewed the edited language.
Furthermore, there was no reason to think that Strzok could have overridden Comey’s own view of Clinton’s conduct. Comey is famously hostile to political favoritism or chumminess with politicians.
Lawrence Noble, the general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan watchdog group, said in a December interview that Strzok likely made a mistake, but that his actions, based on what’s publicly known so far, fall short of contaminating the entire Mueller inquiry.
“That fact that it appears Mueller removed Strzok from the investigation as soon as he found out about the messages tends to underscore Mueller’s seriousness about keeping the investigation free from even the appearance of bias,” Noble told me.
Gilbert said that the timing of right-wing criticism of Mueller’s probe was worth noting— it ramped up just as the investigation was beginning to bear fruit. Conservative attacks against the investigation intensified after Mueller indicted former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and secured a guilty plea from Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser.
Now, this latest development further complicates right-wing arguments that Strzok was an anti-Trump agent of the deep state, but it’s unclear what, if any, effect that will have on the public perception of Strzok.