The FBI has fired agent Peter Strzok, who helped lead the bureau’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election until officials discovered that he had been sending anti-Trump texts.
Aitan Goelman, Strzok’s attorney, said FBI Deputy Director David L. Bowdich ordered the firing Friday, even though the director of the FBI office that usually handles employee discipline had decided that Strzok, 48, should face only a demotion and a 60-day suspension. Goelman said the move undercuts the FBI’s repeated assurances that Strzok would be afforded the normal disciplinary process.
“This isn’t the normal process in any way more than name,” Goelman said, adding in a statement, “This decision should be deeply troubling to all Americans.”
Strzok wrote on Twitter, “Deeply saddened by this decision. It has been an honor to serve my country and work with the fine men and women of the FBI.”
The FBI declined to comment.
The termination is a remarkable downfall for Strzok, a 22-year member of the bureau who investigated Russian spies, defense officials accused of selling secrets to China and myriad other important cases. In the twilight of his career, Strzok was integral to two of the bureau’s most high-profile investigations: the Russia case and the inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.
But when a Justice Department inspector-general investigation uncovered politically charged messages that Strzok had exchanged with another FBI official, he was relegated to a position in human resources. Conservatives soon made Strzok the face of their attacks against special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of the president’s campaign, and the FBI took steps to remove Strzok from its ranks.
Conservatives on Monday hailed the move. President Trump used it to suggest that the Russia investigation should be dropped and the Clinton case redone.
“Agent Peter Strzok was just fired from the FBI — finally,” Trump tweeted. “The list of bad players in the FBI & DOJ gets longer & longer. Based on the fact that Strzok was in charge of the Witch Hunt, will it be dropped? It is a total Hoax. No Collusion, No Obstruction — I just fight back!” he wrote.
Minutes later, he added, “Just fired Agent Strzok, formerly of the FBI, was in charge of the Crooked Hillary Clinton sham investigation. It was a total fraud on the American public and should be properly redone!”
The reaction among Democrats was more understated. Rep. Eric Swalwell (Calif.) said Strzok’s firing did not undercut Mueller’s investigation, which has produced dozens of indictments.
“Sorry, @realDonaldTrump, the #RussiaInvestigation is bigger than one agent (who was at least willing to go under oath),” Swalwell tweeted, citing the president’s Twitter handle.
Agent’s precarious position
Strzok’s team created a GoFundMe page with a lengthy statement to raise money for his “legal costs and lost income” and said on the site that his firing was “apparently driven by political pressure.” The site had raised more than $65,000 by late Monday evening.
Because Strzok was a senior-level FBI employee, and because the FBI’s No. 2 official directed his firing, he has few avenues left to get back his job. It was unclear whether he planned to pursue legal action against the bureau.
Strzok’s position in the bureau had been precarious since last summer, when Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz told Mueller that the lead agent on his team had been exchanging anti-Trump messages with an FBI lawyer. The next day, Mueller expelled Strzok from the group.
The lawyer, Lisa Page, also had been a part of Mueller’s team, although she left a few weeks earlier and no longer works for the FBI. She and Strzok had been having an affair.
Trump has previously derided the pair as “FBI lovers,” and he and his allies have pointed to their conduct in an attempt to discredit the Mueller inquiry. On Saturday, before the firing was known publicly, Trump tweeted an attack on Strzok, Page, former FBI director James B. Comey and former deputy director Andrew McCabe.
“Will the FBI ever recover it’s once stellar reputation, so badly damaged by Comey, McCabe, Peter S and his lover, the lovely Lisa Page, and other top officials now dismissed or fired?” Trump wrote. “So many of the great men and women of the FBI have been hurt by these clowns and losers!”
Horowitz concluded that Strzok showed a “willingness to take official action” to hurt Trump’s electoral prospects, particularly in a text he sent telling Page “we’ll stop” Trump from being president.
Strzok, who was a deputy assistant director for counterintelligence at the bureau, has apologized for sending the messages and said they reflected personal views that did not affect his work. His attorney has said that had Strzok wanted to prevent Trump’s election, he could have leaked that Trump’s campaign was under investigation for possibly coordinating with Russia — a revelation that might have upended his presidential bid.
Denying acting on views
At a congressional hearing last month, Strzok sparred with Republican lawmakers who raised questions about his character and his marriage. He said that there was “no evidence of bias in my professional actions” and that his having to testify was “just another victory notch in [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s belt and another milestone in our enemies’ campaign to tear America apart.”
Strzok was escorted out of the FBI building in June and effectively relieved of work responsibilities, although he remained an FBI employee as he and his attorney challenged the effort to dismiss him. On July 24, they made a final pitch to Candice M. Will, who leads the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility.
Goelman said Will ultimately decided that Strzok should face a demotion and a 60-day suspension and be subjected to a “last chance” agreement. That would have put him on thin ice if he were to commit another offense. But Goelman said Bowdich overruled that decision and ordered Strzok’s termination.
During a June congressional hearing, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said that Strzok had been referred to the Office of Professional Responsibility — which he called the bureau’s “independent disciplinary arm” — and that officials would “not hesitate to hold people strictly accountable.” Wray promised that the process would be “done by the book.”
Strzok is the third high-ranking FBI official involved in the Clinton and Russia investigations to be fired amid an intensely political backdrop. Trump removed Comey as the bureau’s director and said he did so thinking of the Russia case. Attorney General Jeff Sessions later removed Comey’s deputy, McCabe, after the inspector general alleged that he lied about a media disclosure related to Clinton.
McCabe — who, unlike Comey, could not be removed at the will of the president — has said his termination was a politically motivated attempt to undermine the Mueller investigation. He is facing a criminal inquiry by prosecutors in the U.S. attorney’s office in the District of Columbia. McCabe’s attorney wrote Monday of Strzok’s firing: “Another patriot, public servant, and defender of the FBI fired to appease the WH,” using an abbreviation for White House.
It is possible that others could face discipline. The inspector general identified five FBI employees, including Strzok and Page, with some connection to the Clinton email case who had exchanged messages expressing hostility toward Trump, support for Clinton or other political views. Each was referred to the FBI for possible violations of the bureau’s code of conduct.
The inspector general’s office said it found no evidence “to connect the political views expressed in these messages to the specific investigative decisions” in the Clinton case. Its report singled out Strzok, though, for prioritizing the Russia investigation in October 2016 instead of following up on a Clinton-related lead. Strzok’s attorney has disputed that Strzok did not pursue the Clinton lead aggressively.