A former top FBI counterintelligence official is now at the center of a right-wing media push to damage the credibility of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
On Saturday, the New York Times reported that Mueller had dismissed an FBI agent named Peter Strzok from his investigative team back in August because the agent had sent text messages critical of Donald Trump to a colleague. It’s unclear if the agent violated any FBI rules, but Mueller removed him to ensure the investigation was free from accusations of partisan bias, according to the Times.
Then on Monday, CNN reported that Strzok, who led the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s private email server, changed how then-FBI Director James Comey publicly described her behavior from “grossly negligent” to “extremely careless.” That change had the effect of softening Comey’s criticism of Clinton at a particularly sensitive time in the 2016 campaign.
Trump and conservative media figures have seized on Strzok’s removal as evidence that the Mueller probe is tainted by partisan bias — it’s part of an ongoing and intensifying effort to undercut the special counsel as his investigation into Trump’s possible collusion with Russia gathers steam.
In the past five weeks alone, Mueller has indicted former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and secured a guilty plea from Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser. Flynn is now cooperating with Mueller as the special counsel’s probe reaches deeper into Trump’s inner circle.
That’s prompting Trump and his defenders to train their fire on Mueller and his team.
On Sunday, Trump retweeted a description of Strzok’s apparent misdeeds by Paul Sperry, a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution: “STRZOK actually LED the Hillary email probe & recommended clearing her; then was tapped to SUPERVISE the Trump Russia probe!”
Conservative Washington Post columnist Hugh Hewitt pointed to Strzok’s purported miscues in a Tuesday piece calling for the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel to investigate him. And right-wing Twitter is arguing that there are signs of a conspiracy emerging. The Daily Wire’s Ryan Saavedra tweeted that “Robert Mueller knew about this & hid it from the American people.”
Here’s what’s going on — and why experts think the Strzok story actually makes Mueller’s probe look more credible, not less.
Here’s what’s going on with Strzok
Conservatives are mounting two separate attacks against Strzok. The first comes from his role in crafting the language Comey used in July 2016 public comments recommending that prosecutors not bring criminal charges against Clinton.
Speaking to reporters, Comey said that Clinton’s handling had been “extremely careless,” but congressional investigators later uncovered an earlier draft of his comments in which Comey was going 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 potential carries criminal penalties for “gross negligence.”
The other major conservative attack against Strzok is that it’s now known 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 commentary critical of Trump during events like the presidential debates. Strzok was reassigned to the human resources department, where he is now posted.
The inspector general is currently examining Strzok and Page’s text messages to determine if they provide evidence of bias in the way they worked on the Clinton and Trump probes.
It was probably smart of Mueller to remove the FBI agent
The news about Strzok provides ammunition for Trump supporters who believe that the Russia probe is a “witch hunt” designed to take down the president. But government ethics experts say that Mueller’s swift removal of Strzok from the Russia investigation actually boosts 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.
And when it comes to the Clinton memo, 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 is no reason to think that Strzok could’ve overridden Comey’s own view of Clinton’s conduct. Even if Strzok were in fact leading a partisan effort to tweak the language out of a personal desire to defend Clinton, he couldn’t have done it against the will of his own boss. And 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, says 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 find 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 says that the timing of right-wing criticism of Mueller’s probe is worth noting. It’s ramping up “just as the investigation begins to bear fruit.”
Given how fast Mueller is moving, that means you can expect to be hearing the name Peter Strzok a lot in the weeks ahead.
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