If you know the name Peter Strzok, ask yourself why and how.
The how is easy: The Trump administration and Republicans in Congress have aired Strzok’s dirty laundry, including personal text messages he exchanged with his mistress, for months, to tarnish Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
The why is a bit more complicated, but it gets at an asymmetry in American politics that is undermining the supposedly neutral institutions of government in profoundly damaging ways. It’s the same “why” that explains FBI Director James Comey’s decision to insert himself in the 2016 election, and it’s a why that will eventually turn the FBI into a partisan arm of the GOP if nothing is done to stop it.
Strzok was a leading counterintelligence agent who worked with Special Counsel Robert Mueller until the Justice Department’s inspector general, amid a review of DOJ’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, discovered those text messages, which included harsh criticism of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. Mueller removed Strzok from his team because of these messages about one year ago, and this past winter, officials of the Justice Department and/or the GOP Congress leaked his name (and eventually scores of his text messages), to the end of discrediting the Russia investigation.
It is arguably defensible, as a matter of public accountability, that we know so much about Strzok’s personal business. Congress rightly asked the inspector general to determine whether any political bias at the FBI compromised the email investigation, and it was perfectly appropriate to examine that issue from both directions. As obvious as the answer seems to people of good faith, it would not have been proper for the IG to examine only whether anti-Clinton bias altered the course of the email investigation. He was also duty bound to probe the question of whether Clinton benefited from anti-Trump bias—if only to lay Trump’s conspiracy theories to rest.
Asked and answered: in a voluminous report released last week, Inspector General Michael Horowitz condemned Strzok, though he concluded that political bias did not alter the final disposition of the email investigation.
But that does not mean political bias didn’t shape the course of the email investigation, which, apart from its ultimate conclusions, will forever be defined by FBI Director James Comey’s repeated public pronouncements about it—intrusions which credible analysis suggests is the reason Trump, rather than Clinton, is currently president.
And here, the report is full of details that are both shocking, and yet diffused throughout hundreds of pages, as if anti-Clinton bias within the FBI were some ethereal force rather than a descriptive fact about indiviual people. Horowitz concludes that Comey violated DOJ norms, and behaved insubordinately, and he includes testimony from multiple officials (including then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch) suggesting he felt pressured into inveighing against Clinton inappropriately because senior agents in the FBI’s New York field office harbored a “deep and visceral hatred of Secretary Clinton” and would have leaked sensitive investigative information pertaining to her case if Comey didn’t do it himself.
Who are these agents? What are their names? What do their text messages from that period say?
We’re left, for now, to guess. Multiple reports suggest that a separate IG investigation about leaks more generally will encompass that issue, but in a report that’s notionally about whether politics infected the email investigation, the question of whether politically biased agents leaking to the media drove critical and improper decisions (which in turn swung the election), the IG’s conclusion is basically ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
“The large number of FBI employees who were in contact with journalists during this time period impacted our ability to identify the sources of leaks,” Horowitz wrote.
This is wholly unsatisfying—in effect, an admission that the whole IG report is flawed, because the office deprioritized, or lacked the resources to investigate, what is perhaps the question at the center of the Clinton email travesty. The disparate treatment of Strzok and these agents is glaring, and appears to be the product of partisan pressure just as much as Comey’s errors were apparently the result of partisan pressure.
We know the anti-Clinton leaking was a live issue, and one that was once of great concern as it was happening. Credible reporting during the election detailed the political bias of the New York field office. We know some of the leaks went to Rudy Giuliani—a key Trump surrogate—because he bragged about it on Fox News, again, during the election. Whatever Comey now says about the impact of those leaks, we know they infuriated him, because he testified to it at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
In May of last year, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) asked Comey, “Anybody in the FBI during this 2016 campaign have contact with Rudy Giuliani about — about the Clinton investigation?”
Comey responded, “I don’t know yet. But if I find out that people were leaking information about our investigations, whether it’s to reporters or to private parties, there will be severe consequences… it’s a matter that I’m very, very interested in.”
Days later Trump fired Comey. Within a few weeks, he nominated Christopher Wray to take over the bureau. In supplemental questions ahead of Wray’s confirmation, Leahy picked up where he left off and asked Wray to “commit to continuing this investigation and commit, as Director Comey did, to report your findings back to Congress. Wray’s response was, again, wholly unsatisfying. “I am not familiar with the circumstances referenced in your question and therefore am not in a position to comment or make a commitment at this time.”
Wray has been FBI director for several months now, and since then, the evidence of New York field office meddling has only grown stronger, and yet the word “Giuliani” appears nowhere in the IG report. Last week, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes told Fox News that “good FBI agents” told him, too, about the potential reopening of the Clinton email investigation in late September—weeks before Comey announced it in a letter to Congress. There is no Republican other than Trump more taken with peddling “deep state” conspiracy theories than Devin Nunes, and here we catch a glimpse of why that is: Turning career security services professionals into partisan agents of the Republican Party is what he and others in the GOP want to do—indeed what they’ve already done—and so they project that same desire on to Democrats. In this warped telling Peter Strzok is the liberal “deep state” bogeyman.
But Peter Strzok didn’t strategically leak to Democrats or the media anything that might have helped Clinton or hurt Trump. Strzok may have felt “deep and visceral hatred” for Trump, as his text messages suggest he did for many, many politicians, but as far as we can tell, he didn’t act based upon that animus. It was Nunes’s “good FBI agents” who did that. Strzok is a central character in the IG report, because if he weren’t, Trump and Nunes would attack the IG in bad faith as a participant in the deep state conspiracy to destroy Donald Trump. The “good FBI agents” get glossed over, and lumped in with other generic “leakers” for essentially the same reason. As in 2016, the Justice Department has allowed politics to shape its investigative conduct out of fear of bad-faith criticism from the right—and ever so slowly the effect is to make federal law enforcement the partisan tool Trump wants it to be. Partisan law enforcement already swung an election for him. But we don’t know their names, and it’s possible we never will.