WASHINGTON - The FBI has fired agent Peter Strzok, whose anti-Trump text messages fueled controversy over the investigation into Russia’s election interference, a move that U.S. President Donald Trump quickly celebrated.
“Agent Peter Strzok was just fired from the FBI — finally,” Trump said in a tweet. “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.”
But Strzok’s lawyer, Aitan Goelman, who disclosed the agent’s dismissal Monday, said in a statement that “this decision should be deeply troubling to all Americans. A lengthy investigation and multiple rounds of congressional testimony failed to produce a shred of evidence that Special Agent Strzok’s personal views ever affected his work.”
Text messages denouncing then-candidate Trump that Strzok exchanged with former FBI lawyer Lisa Page in 2016 have been cited by Trump and Republican allies in an effort to undermine the investigation into Russia meddling and whether anyone close to Trump colluded in it.
Strzok, 48, was a lead investigator at the start of the counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s interference, as well as the investigation into Democrat Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state. In a tweet sent Monday, Trump wrote that the Clinton probe now “should be properly redone!”
An independent review by the Justice Department’s inspector-general into how the Clinton investigation was handled was highly critical of Strzok but ultimately concluded that anti-Trump bias didn’t affect investigative decisions, including the recommendation against prosecuting Clinton for mishandling classified information. The watchdog is currently reviewing whether any bias or misdeeds affected the Trump-Russia investigation.
Jacqueline Maguire, an FBI spokeswoman, said in a statement released Monday evening that “Mr. Strzok was subject to the standard FBI review and disciplinary process after conduct highlighted in the IG report was referred to the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR). OPR reviewed the investigative materials, as well as the written and oral responses of Mr. Strzok and his counsel, and issued OPR’s decision.”
Robert Mueller, who is now special counsel in charge of the Russia probe, removed Strzok from his team after learning about the text messages. Page left the FBI earlier this year.
“It’s about time,” Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, a Judiciary Committee member who has been leading the House scrutiny of Strzok and other FBI and Justice officials, said in an interview Monday. “Frankly, this is just sort of fundamental. The American people deserve a fair and unbiased FBI, and obviously Strzok was not that.”
Goelman said the FBI departed from established precedent by firing Strzok, who had served in the bureau for 21 years. Goelman said FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich “reversed the decision of the career FBI official responsible for employee discipline who concluded, through an independent review process, that a 60-day suspension and demotion from supervisory duties was the appropriate punishment.”
The decision to fire Strzok was so surprising because he had signed an agreement in July with the Office of Professional Responsibility to accept the suspension and demotion, Goelman said in an interview Monday.
But when the final agreement was delivered to Strzok’s legal team Friday, it came with a letter from Bowdich overruling the deal and firing him without providing an explanation for why he’d intervened, Goelman said. In the letter, Bowdich did not provide any reason for why he got involved in the decision but cited the text messages that Strzok had sent as being horrible, Goelman said.
Strzok and his legal team are exploring whether they have any recourse to contest the firing, Goelman said. “People have gotten far more lenient punishments for far more egregious conduct,” the lawyer said.
When Strzok testified before House lawmakers in July, Republicans maintained that anti-Trump bias “turned our system of justice on its head,” as House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte put it. “We don’t want to read text message after text message dripping with bias against one of the two presidential candidates,” added Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican.
Democratic Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York countered that the Strzok-Page inquiry and the hearing amounted to “a monumental distraction” from the legitimate Russia investigation.
Strzok echoed Democrats’ response that he’s a pawn in an effort to undercut or end the investigation into the meddling that U.S. intelligence agencies found was ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I strongly believe today’s hearing is just another victory notch in Putin’s belt and another milestone in our enemies’ campaign to tear America apart,” he said at the hearing.
Strzok said he was “one of a handful of people who knew the details of Russian election interference and its possible connections with members of the Trump campaign. This information had the potential to derail, and quite possibly, defeat Mr. Trump. But the thought of expressing that or exposing that information never crossed my mind.”
Jordan, the House Republican, said FBI officials told him Strzok could have answered “about 90 percent” of the questions he declined to address during his House testimony. “We asked to get those answers,” in writing or, if needed by calling Strzok back to testify again, he said.
House Republicans continue to press their case that the Russia inquiry was tainted by decisions taken early on, before Mueller was appointed.
This week, George Toscas, a national security prosecutor with the Justice Department, is set to be interviewed by staff and some members of the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform panels, according to Representative Mark Meadows, chairman of the House subcommittee on government operations.
Justice Department official Bruce Ohr is expected to be interviewed on Aug. 28 by House members about his ties to the author of the controversial dossier on Trump compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele and underwritten largely by Clinton’s campaign and Democrats.
The inquiries have put Republicans in the awkward position of attacking the Federal Bureau of Investigation, an agency that traditionally has been championed by the party as a bastion of law-and-order probity.
Meadows — who said in a statement that Strzok was fired because “he was willing to use his official FBI position to try and stop President Trump from getting elected” — added that “I hope this development will allow us to move forward in restoring the character of an agency where so many brave men and women work tirelessly to keep America safe.”