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Peter Strzok

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Peter Strzok
Strzok1.png
Peter Strzok during a congressional hearing in July 2018
Born Peter Paul Strzok II
(1970-03-07) March 7, 1970 (age 48)
Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, U.S.
Education Georgetown University
Spouse(s) Melissa Hodgman

Peter Paul Strzok II (/strʌk/, like struck; born March 7, 1970)[1] is a former United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent.[2][3][4] Strzok was the Chief of the Counterespionage Section and led the FBI's investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a personal email server.[5][4][6]

Strzok rose to become the Deputy Assistant Director of the Counterintelligence Division, the second-highest position in that division. He also led the FBI's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections.[4][7][8][9]

In June and July 2017, Strzok worked on Robert Mueller's Special Counsel investigation into any links or coordination between Donald Trump's presidential campaign and the Russian government.[10][7][9] Mueller removed Strzok from the Russia investigation when Mueller became aware of criticisms of Trump contained in personal text messages exchanged between Strzok and a colleague.[11][12]

The revelation of the text messages led Republican congressmen and right wing media to start pushing conspiracy theories to the effect that Strzok was involved in a secret plot an undermine the Trump presidency[13][14][15][16] and they used the text messages as part of a campaign to discredit Mueller's investigation. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has defended Mueller's response to the text messages.

After doing a comprehensive review in February 2018 of Strzok's messages, Del Quentin Wilber of The Wall Street Journal concluded that "texts critical of Mr. Trump represent a fraction of the roughly 7,000 messages, which stretch across 384 pages and show no evidence of a conspiracy against Mr. Trump".[17]

On August 10, 2018, David Bowdich, the FBI deputy director, fired Strzok.[2]

Early life

Peter Paul Strzok II was born at the Kincheloe AFB Hospital near Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, to Peter Paul Strzok and Virginia Sue Harris.[1] His father was a longtime member of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.[18] One of Strzok's uncles is Father James Strzok, SJ, a Jesuit priest doing missionary work in east Africa.[19] The Strzok family hails from Poland. For high school, Strzok attended St. John's Preparatory School in Minnesota, graduating in 1987.[20] He earned a bachelor's degree from Georgetown University in 1991 as well as a master's degree in 2013.[21][22] After graduating from Georgetown in 1991, Strzok served as an officer in the United States Army before leaving to join the FBI in 1996 as an intelligence research specialist.[8][23] Strzok is married to Melissa Hodgman, an associate director at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.[24][25][26]

FBI

A career employee with the FBI for 22 years before his firing in August 2018,[27] Strzok had been a lead agent in the FBI's "Operation Ghost Stories" against Andrey Bezrukov and Yelena Vavilova, a Russian spy couple who were part of the Illegals Program, a network of Russian sleeper agents who were arrested in 2010.[28] By July 2015, Strzok was serving as the section chief of the Counterespionage Section, a subordinate section of the FBI's Counterintelligence Division.[4]

He led a team of a dozen investigators during the FBI's investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a personal email server and assisted in the drafting of public statements for then-FBI Director James Comey.[29] He changed the description of Clinton's actions from "grossly negligent", which could be a criminal offense, to "extremely careless".[4] The draft was reviewed and corrected by several people and its creation was a team process. In his statement to Congress, Comey said that "no reasonable prosecutor" would bring charges based on available evidence.[4] Later, when additional emails were discovered a few days before the election, Strzok supported reopening the Clinton investigation.[30] He then co-wrote the letter[31] that Comey used to inform Congress, which "reignited the email controversy in the final days" and "played a key role in a controversial FBI decision that upended Hillary Clinton's campaign."[30]

Strzok rose to the position of Deputy Assistant Director of the Counterintelligence Division, and as the number two official within that division oversaw investigations involving Russia and China.[10][32][8] In that capacity, he led the FBI's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections,[4][33] and examined both the Donald Trump–Russia dossier and the Russian role in the 2016 Democratic National Committee email leak.[34][3][29] He also oversaw the bureau's interviews with then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn; Flynn later pled guilty to lying during those interviews.[35]

In July 2017, Strzok became the top FBI agent working for Robert Mueller's 2017 Special Counsel investigation looking into any links or coordination between Trump's presidential campaign and the Russian government.[36][37] He served in that position until August 2017, at which time he was moved to the Human Resources Branch.[38][39][40][41][42] According to The New York Times, Strzok was "considered one of the most experienced and trusted FBI counterintelligence investigators,"[23] as well as "one of the Bureau's top experts on Russia" according to CNN.[4]

Strzok left the investigation in late July 2017 after the discovery of personal text messages sent to a colleague.[43] At the request of Republicans in Congress, the Justice Department (DOJ) Inspector General (IG) began an inquiry in January 2017 into how the FBI handled investigations related to the election, and the IG announced it would issue a report by March or April 2018.[23][44] The report was eventually released on June 14, 2018, after several delays.

On June 15, 2018, the day after this IG report was published, Strzok was escorted from FBI headquarters as part of the bureau's internal conduct investigations.[45] The move put Strzok on notice that the bureau intends to fire him, though he had appeal rights that could delay such action.[46] On June 21, 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that Strzok had lost his security clearance.[47]

FBI Deputy Director David L. Bowdich fired Strzok on August 10, 2018. His decision overruled the FBI Office of Professional Responsibility, whose head, Candice Will, had decided that Strzok should be demoted and suspended for 60 days.[48]

Text messages

During the IG's investigation, thousands of text messages exchanged using FBI-issued cell phones between Strzok and Lisa Page, a trial attorney on Mueller's team, were examined.[49][50][50] The texts were sent between August 15, 2015 and December 1, 2016. At the request of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the DOJ turned over 375 of these text messages to the House Judiciary Committee.[49][50][51] Some of the texts disparaged then-presidential candidate Donald Trump,[49][50][52][53] Chelsea Clinton, Attorney General in the Obama administration Eric Holder, former Democratic Governor Martin O'Malley, and candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination Bernie Sanders.[54][55][56] Strzok called Trump an "idiot" in August 2015 and texted "God Hillary should win 100,000,000 - 0" after a Republican debate in March 2016.[49][50][57] In their messages, Strzok and Page also advocated for creating a Special Counsel to investigate the Hillary Clinton email controversy, and discussed suggesting former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald be considered for such a probe.[58] Devlin Barrett from The Washington Post alleged Strzok and Page had been using the backdrop of discussing the Clinton investigation as a cover for their personal communications during an affair.[59] Upon learning of the text messages, Mueller removed Strzok from the investigation.[23] Messages released in January 2018 showed that Strzok was hesitant to join the Mueller investigation, with Page encouraging him not to.[60]

Strzok's colleagues and a former Trump administration official said that Strzok had never shown any political bias.[61][52] An associate of his says the political parts of the text messages were especially related to Trump's criticism of the FBI's investigation of the Clinton emails.[61] According to FBI guidelines, agents are allowed to have and express political opinions as individuals. Former FBI and DOJ officials told The Hill that it was not uncommon for agents like Strzok to hold political opinions and still conduct an impartial investigation.[62] Several agents asserted that Mueller had removed Strzok to protect the integrity of the special counsel's Russia investigation.[63] Strzok was not punished following his reassignment.[64] Defenders of Strzok and Page in the FBI said no professional misconduct between them occurred.[52]

The decision by the DOJ to publicize the private messages in December 2017 was controversial. Statements by DOJ spokeswomen revealed that some reporters had copies of the texts even before the DOJ invited the press to review them, but the DOJ did not authorize the pre-release. Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee have asked for a review of the circumstances under which the texts were leaked to select press outlets.[65]

The Office of Inspector General's report on the FBI's handling of the Clinton email investigation published on June 14, 2018, criticized Strzok's text messages for creating the appearance of impropriety. However, the report concluded that there was no evidence of bias in the FBI's decision not to pursue criminal charges against Clinton.[66] The report revealed additional texts hostile to Donald Trump by Strzok. In early August 2016, after Page asked Strzok, "[Trump's] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!", Strzok responded: "No. No he won't. We'll stop it."[67] Many Democrats noted that the FBI's actions during 2016 presidential campaign, such as reopening the Clinton email investigation on the eve of the election and elements within the FBI telling the New York Times that there was no clear link between the Trump campaign and Russia, ended up harming the Clinton campaign and benefitting the Trump campaign.[68]

At a July 12, 2018, public congressional hearing, Strzok denied that the personal beliefs expressed in the text messages impacted his work for the FBI. Strzok explained that a "We'll stop Trump" text message was written late at night and off-the-cuff shortly after Trump denigrated the immigrant family of a fallen American war hero, Khizr and Ghazala Khan, and that the message reflected Strzok's belief that Americans would not vote for a candidate who engaged in such "horrible, disgusting behavior". Strzok said the message "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." Strzok added that he knew of information during the 2016 presidential campaign that could have damaged Trump but that he never contemplated leaking it. Strzok also said that he criticized politicians such as Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in his "blunt" text messages. Strzok said that the investigation into him and the Republicans' related rhetoric was misguided and played into “our enemies’ campaign to tear America apart.”[66]

Reactions

Strzok's personal messages to Lisa Page have been used by Republicans to attack the impartiality of Mueller's investigation into Donald Trump's alleged collusion with Russia during the election. Conservative media outlets and Republicans have used the text messages as part of an aggressive campaign to discredit the Mueller investigation and protect President Trump. Other Republicans have defended Mueller and his work, including Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein who said that he would only fire Mueller if there was actual cause under DOJ regulations, and that no such cause existed. Rosenstein also praised Mueller for removing Strzok from the Russian investigation.[69]

Congressional scrutiny

In an August 15, 2016 text message, Strzok told Page: "I want to believe the path you threw out for consideration in Andy's (Andrew McCabe, Deputy Director of the FBI) office that there's no way Trump gets elected—but I'm afraid we can't take that risk. It's like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you're 40 ... " This message attracted scrutiny from Republicans, including Senator Chuck Grassley, chairman of the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, who stated: "Some of these texts appear to go beyond merely expressing a private political opinion, and appear to cross the line into taking some official action to create an 'insurance policy' against a Trump presidency." Sources close to Strzok and Page told The Wall Street Journal that Strzok was not contemplating using the FBI's investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to harm Trump's candidacy, but rather emphasizing the need to aggressively pursue any such leads before the election "because some of Mr. Trump's associates could land administration jobs and it was important to know if they had colluded with Russia."[70][71]

On January 20, 2018, Senator Ron Johnson (R–WI) released a letter in which he stated that the FBI's technical system had failed to preserve five months' worth of texts between Strzok and Page. According to the letter, the texts in question were sent between mid-December 2016 and mid-May 2017.[72] A Justice Department official later said that the technical lapse had affected thousands of FBI-issued phones, which failed to store text messages for periods of up to a year.[73]

In late January 2018, a number of congressional Republicans, including Sen. Ron Johnson, asserted that they had evidence that pointed towards FBI agents working clandestinely to undermine the Trump presidency; they asserted that Strzok and Page were in a "secret society" against Trump. Congressional Republicans refused to release the evidence behind the assertion, but ABC News obtained a copy of the message that Republicans were referring to and noted that the message that refers to a "secret society" may have been made in jest.[74] The day after his assertion that these messages demonstrated "corruption at the highest levels of the FBI" and after a copy of the messages were revealed by ABC News, Johnson walked back his comments and said that there was a "real possibility" that the messages were made in jest.[75]

In February 2018, Johnson speculated that a text message between FBI agent Peter Strzok and Lisa Page raised questions about "the type and extent of President Obama's personal involvement" in the Clinton emails investigation.[76] Fox News reiterated, without scrutiny, Ron Johnson's speculative claim that text messages between senior FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page suggested that President Barack Obama was deeply involved in the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails. Fox News spokeswoman Carly Shanahan did not answer an inquiry from CNN about whether Fox News reached out to Obama for comment.[77] Johnson's claim was covered by various pro-Trump websites, such as Drudge Report, Breitbart, InfoWars and The Gateway Pundit, before President Trump himself tweeted "NEW FBI TEXTS ARE BOMBSHELLS!"[77] Other news outlets reported that the text messages were sent in September 2016, months after the Clinton emails investigation had concluded, and three days before Obama would confront Russian President Vladimir Putin about interference in the 2016 election at the G20 Hangzhou summit.[77][78] Associates of Strzok and Page told The Wall Street Journal the texts were about the FBI's investigation into Russian electoral interference.[76] Fox News continued to report the story even after these news outlets had provided this context for the messages.[77]

Fox News commentary

Some commentators on Fox News used Strzok's messages to comment negatively on the Mueller investigation. Jesse Watters said that Mueller's investigation now amounted to a coup against President Trump, if "the investigation was weaponized to destroy his presidency for partisan political purposes".[79][80][81][82][83] Fox Business host Lou Dobbs said that the FBI and DOJ were working clandestinely to destroy the Trump presidency, and called for a "war" against the "deep state".[84] One guest on Fox's talk and news show Outnumbered, Kevin Jackson, speculated that Strzok's messages were evidence of a plot by FBI agents to make "an assassination attempt or whatever" against President Trump, which other Fox hosts quickly contradicted and said was not "credible".[85] Fox News figures referred to the investigation as "corrupt", "crooked" and "illegitimate", and likened the FBI to the KGB, the brutal Soviet-era spy organization.[79] Political scientists and experts on coups rejected that Mueller's investigation amounted to a coup.[79]

See also

References

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