Q&A: Former FBI agent Peter Strzok on Trump, Russia, and his texts
October 7, 2020
The Russia investigation is back in the news, facing scrutiny in two separate probes, a raft of new books, and a Showtime miniseries.
One of those books is “Compromised,” by Peter Strzok, the former FBI deputy assistant director who was dismissed from the bureau amid a firestorm caused by the release of anti-Trump text messages that he sent to a fellow agent. I spoke to Strzok recently about his role in the Trump investigations, the threat Russia still poses to U.S. elections, and more:
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I’d like to start with the title of the book. You assert that President Trump is compromised by the Russians. But the FBI, the special counsel, the House, and the Senate have all investigated Trump’s connections with Russians and none have made that conclusion. What makes you so comfortable making that claim, regardless of those investigations?
One of the easier ways to look at how an intelligence service will compromise somebody and exert leverage over them is the acronym “MICE”: money, ideology, compromising material, or ego. And I think when you look at Trump, all of those things exist and some of them are coming out and becoming public.
The Mueller report talks about the fact that when Trump was on the campaign trail in 2016, announcing to the crowds that he had no business connections in Russia whatsoever, Michael Cohen and others were busy trying to make a deal for Trump Tower in Moscow at the same time. The minute Trump says that, he knows he’s not telling the truth. And Vladimir Putin knows that. And that creates leverage.
And there are these inexplicable things that Trump has done with regard to Russia, decisions that don’t support American national security interests but are all very much to Russia’s advantage. So you have to ask why. And the only thing that really makes sense are these hidden entanglements and leverage that Russia holds over him, which are causing him to do these things.
You’ve said in other interviews that you believed Trump was compromised even when you were at the bureau. But one controversial text that you sent then that you don’t mention in the book is from May 2017, when you wrote “there no big there there,” referring to the Trump probe. So what did you mean by that?
The worst-case scenario in that investigation was that Trump was a Manchurian candidate, that he was in a witting clandestine relationship with somebody in the government of Russia that was telling him what to do, and he was taking direction and acting at their behest.
On the opposite end of that was the possibility, rather than any sort of centralized activity, that you had a whole bunch of opportunists and grifters individually running around, advancing their own interests ahead of the national interest in a very uncoordinated sort of way. I was inclined to think that was much more the nature of what we were looking at. So when I say no big “there there,” the “there” would be this guy on top coordinating all this activity because he’s being controlled by the Russians.
And going by what you say you meant by there’s “no big there there,” is that still how you feel today?
Yeah, in the sense that “big there there” means a coordinated conspiracy. It does not mean that it’s not bad. And that’s how it’s gotten twisted in a way that kind of makes me angry. If your city is full of crime and there’s not a crime boss directing at all, your city’s still full of crime, just with all sort of individual people running around.
Two texts that you do address in the book are some of the more infamous ones: the “insurance policy” and your promise to Lisa Page that “we will stop” President Trump’s election. You offer explanations for both in the book, but do you understand the concerns that you were sending them at all? Do you think that’s appropriate for an FBI agent?
Sure, of course I understand that concern. And it’s a reasonable question to ask. But every FBI agent, like everybody else, tends to have a political opinion about what’s going on, that we’re, allowed and encouraged to have as part of the First Amendment. And I’d point you to the two inspector general investigations over the course of three years — literally fifteen or more people literally looking at every text, every email, every note, every communication, every conversation I had, who conclusively determined that there was no documentary or evidentiary evidence that I or my team took actions based on any improper motive.
Look at the actual facts of what happened in the fall of 2016. We unequivocally hurt Secretary Clinton’s chances both by the July 6 announcement and by the announcement of the reopening of the case. If we had wanted to hurt Trump, we had the cases all that throughout that fall on Paul Manafort, Carter Page, George Papadopoulos, Mike Flynn. None of that came out. In fact, every single thing, everything that either related to Clinton investigations or relating to the investigations on the Trump campaign figures: all of this, to an individual item, all serves to hurt Clinton and helped Trump. So if there’s this horrible bias, then show me where that manifested. You can’t. And so, if you don’t — if you can’t accept that, then I don’t know what more I can do to persuade you that that’s not a valid concern at the end of the day.
You just cited the inspector general, but the IG also said that your texts showed “extremely poor judgment and a gross lack of professionalism.” So do you accept that determination as well?
Well, look, I clearly regret sending those texts and if I had to do it again, I wouldn’t. Having said all that, government employees get to have opinions. You know, we can’t stand in a unit meeting or go on social media and do public postings. But in private, in private communication, we’re allowed to talk about it. But, at the end of the day, [the inspector general] found in the course of the Clinton investigation that I was among the most aggressive people pushing for that investigation. They found that in the fall of ’16, the actions we took universally served to help Trump and hurt Clinton.
And so it’s more than just not finding anything, when the evidence you’re finding is actually contrary to any sort of allegation of potential bias. At some point you’ve got to stand up and say, “hey, not only do we not see anything, but we’re seeing the opposite.”
But the inspector general also wrote that “we did not have confidence that the decision of Deputy Assistant Director Peter Strzok to prioritize the Russia investigation over following up on the Weiner laptop was free from bias.” Do you acknowledge the possibility that your implicit biases influenced how you conducted these two investigations?
Look, implicit bias is real. And we go through a lot of training, in the FBI, in the law enforcement community, to make sure that that is not playing a role in our decision making. I think if anything, if you’re aware of having certain beliefs, you tend to err on the opposite side to make sure you’re not acting with that implicit bias.
But that specific example is a great example of something I disagree with the IG on. The fact of the matter is, when we found out about the Wiener laptop, within three or four hours, I had told people on the Clinton team to get in touch with New York and get up there. I provided the IG will that timeline. And they chose not to incorporate it into the report, which is a source of tremendous frustration, because it clearly points to the fact that I was prioritizing and I was taking the appropriate, active interest in it by assigning it to folks on the team to follow up—
They say you did not take immediate action, but you say that’s not the case.
Well, I don’t know they say it exactly that way.
It says “failure to take immediate action after discovering the Weiner laptop.”
And what I will tell you, and can point to documentary evidence, that within hours that I did, and they chose not to include that information. And also, in terms of prioritizing it, the Clinton investigation was a case of mishandling classified information, the sort of thing that goes on frequently in the federal government, at the Cabinet secretary type level. It was important because it involved the Democratic nominee for president of the United States. But this was just another mishandling case. Compare that to a multifaceted Russian attack on the core of our democracy, our presidential elections, that they’re doing in the cyber arena.
They aren’t equivalent. There is no investigator, no counterintelligence professional, that would look at those two options and not say that the Russian attacks on the core of our democracy are fundamentally of a greater threat than what Secretary Clinton did or didn’t do with regard to her e-mail server. So of course I prioritized the Russian response, just like everybody in the FBI prioritized the response the Russian attacks. That’s appropriate. That is something that is absolutely consistent with the FBI pursuing its mission to defend America. So, that prioritization comparison bothers me as well, because I don’t think it holds water.
To go back to Russian interference, you write in the book that the Russians “pulled some of their punches” in 2016 and there was a fear that there was they had “something in reserve” that they could use in the next election. Obviously, we’re here now at the next election. Can you talk more about why you made that assessment and what capabilities you felt that they didn’t deploy in 2016 but that they might in 2020?
Sure. I had to submit my manuscript, as every former government employee does, for prepublication review. And I’m glad that they let that get published. Having said that, what I can’t say and what I couldn’t publish is kind of the specifics about that. But, I think it’s fair to say, the Russians are getting better at hiding their hands. I think, broadly, Russia’s goals are the same. They are trying, at the end of the day, to divide us. Yes, they absolutely are trying to denigrate Biden and help Trump. But at the end of the day, the goal is always advancing Russian interests. So it is not so much, at the end of the day, who is or isn’t elected. It is for us to be turned inward and fighting amongst ourselves and tearing apart the fabric of democracy and the validity and our faith in our voting system, that’s the goal.
And so what I would expect to see is very much the same as what we saw in 2016 in identifying these divisive social issues, which is particularly concerning is when you see, because of COVID, the different dynamics of voting this year, with a lot more mail-in voting. And so my worry is the potential that if we have a very close election where the results aren’t clear or apparent on election night, that sort of tension-filled environment is absolutely a ripe place where Russian disinformation can have a great effect.
You’ve worked in counterintelligence with respect to Russia for a long time. Are there steps that you think our leaders should be taking to counteract this Russian interference that aren’t being taken right now, and what are they?
Absolutely there are. If you want to do any sort of effective policy response, that has to be done from the whole government. There’s things that the Departments of Treasury or Commerce or State or others can do to advance our election security, but it’s kind of like watching little kids on a soccer field. Everybody’s pursuing the soccer ball in the little scrum. That might score a goal. But it’s not nearly as effective as when you’re passing the ball around and you’re in a coordinated response. It’s the same with the government. But that has to come from the National Security Council, that’s the only place you can bring the entirety of the government together in a coordinated way.
And so if that is being shut down from the top and the top is the only place you’re going to have this coordinated, fulsome, complete response, then you’re not maximizing the abilities of the U.S. government to protect our elections in the way that you might.
And then to turn to another investigation that’s going on, which your name has come up a lot in, is the investigation that U.S. Attorney John Durham is leading into “Crossfire Hurricane” [the FBI’s probe into links between the Trump campaign and Russia]. Have you been interviewed in that investigation? Are you worried about your own exposure in terms of that probe?
I haven’t been interviewed and I’m not worried. I mean, look, I didn’t do anything wrong, let alone illegal, and I didn’t see others doing things that I thought were wrong or illegal. None of us would have stood for illegal activity. So I’m not quite sure what he’s doing.
So you don’t think there’s any need for an investigation into “Crossfire Hurricane”?
I think it already occurred through the IG. The IG already found that all these cases were properly predicated. They went to a great deal of time and paper to explain each of the standards for opening investigations and how the investigations were opened. And what is described in the IG report is what happened. I mean, that is not only my recollection, but those are the facts.
So you say what is in the IG report, “that’s what happened.” But there’s been a few points where you’ve said that the IG report is not what happened. For example, the IG report says that your texts were indicative of “a biased state of mind,” and it sounds like you don’t agree with that. So do you accept the IG investigation, or not?
Well, there’s a difference, right? I mean, the IG researches facts and then they provide analysis. With the exception of facts I think they missed and chose not to put in that we provided them about the actions on the Weiner laptop, I think their fact-gathering is largely complete and accurate. I have a lot of disagreement with their analysis because a lot of that, in my opinion, is politically skewed in a way to suit the IG’s funding and to navigate the Washington political process. But that’s their analysis. So I don’t see it as inconsistent at all that I can sit there and say, “I think the fact-gathering is largely good, but I disagree with their analysis of that.” That’s how I’d split it.
But you don’t support John Durham or anybody re-analyzing it then?
I think people can. I am not worried that people can go back in and if they are doing it objectively and get to the truth, they’re going to find the same thing that everybody else has already found. I am concerned, though, that that is not being done and there’s evidence of that. I’m really concerned that his deputy, somebody he’s worked with decades, was so concerned with what was going on that she quit, that, if the reporting out of The Hartford Courant is to be believed, that she believed that the investigation is being rushed for partisan political purpose. So that concerns me a lot. And it makes me worried that this is not an investigation in search of the truth. This is an investigation designed to be a political tool for as long as it’s needed, certainly through the election.
Something that strikes me is that you’re essentially saying that John Durham’s investigation, even the Inspector General’s investigation, are politically biased. But that’s exactly what President Trump and his allies say about your investigation, except you say that you were able to separate your political biases from the investigation — even though the Inspector General didn’t express that confidence. So, you’re saying that you were able to separate your biases, but John Durham can’t?
Well, Trump says that [the Russia investigation was biased]. But, a) he’s a liar, and b) let’s go through and count the literal dozens of people who have been charged. Let’s look at all the criminals in the Trump campaign and administration. So, I think it’s a false equivalence. And I think that’s what they’re trying to do, muddy up the environment. And if you put them together in an equivalency, you’re buying into this sort of partisan nonsense that some folks are trying to trying to make, that just simply doesn’t exist.
The book ends by saying “there’s still work to be done.” Where do you see yourself fitting into that work? What are your plans going forward?
I’m teaching right now at Georgetown, which is something I’ve always wanted to do. I’m still drawn to public service, whatever that looks like. There is a lot to be done, whether it’s inside the government or outside the government.
And so, you still think you might potentially return to government?
Someday. Look, I’m in no rush to get back there. I don’t know what the terrain looks like in five months, let alone in four or eight years. But I’m young from a public service perspective. So, I’m not ruling anything out. But, let’s get to November and then let’s get to January and then figure out what the world looks like at that point.