By Karoun Demirjian , Karoun Demirjian Congressional reporter focusing on national security Email Bio Follow Matt Zapotosky and Matt Zapotosky National security reporter covering the Justice Department Email Bio Follow Devlin Barrett Devlin Barrett Reporter focusing on national security and law enforcement Email Bio Follow March 14 at 12:08 PM The top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday released the transcript from a closed-door interview with former FBI counterintelligence official Peter Strzok, in which argued to a joint congressional panel that text messages he sent expressing disdain for President Trump had been misconstrued to be more disparaging than intended.
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In the June 2018 interview, Strzok also vehemently objected to the Justice Department inspector general’s conclusion that he had prioritized the bureau’s Trump investigation, which he led, over an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, which he joined midstream. Strzok argued that he “never took resources off one and put it onto the other,” but that “a hostile foreign power . . . seeking to clandestinely influence our presidential election” was a far graver threat than the charge that Clinton was mishandling classified information.
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Strzok, who played a leading role in the FBI’s concurrent probes of Trump and Clinton, made a series of anti-Trump text messages he sent to former FBI lawyer Lisa Page, with whom Strzok confirmed he was having an affair. He was removed from a senior role with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election over the substance of the texts, though he said no one ever asked him about the intent behind his messages while he was being reassigned.
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In some of the messages — such as a 2016 text in which Strzok characterizes the FBI’s Russia probe as an “insurance policy” in the event Trump won the election — Strzok said he had not meant to convey deep animus against Trump, but instead stress to Page that polls showing that Trump was not likely to win “should not get in the way of us doing our job responsibly to protect the national security.”
Describing in vague terms the conversations at the FBI around the time the Russia investigation was opened, Strzok said there was debate about protecting a source, and Page argued that because it was unlikely Trump would get elected, investigators could move slowly and not put the source at risk. Strzok said he made the counterargument: That if Trump won and people alleged to be involved in nefarious activity were put in national security positions, “we might need to protect America by finding out whether these allegations are accurate or not and making sure that the government, President Trump in that case, was making special — or appropriate decisions.”
“If there’s an allegation, he, of all people, but everybody would want to know: if this is going on in my campaign I want you to tell me about it,” Strzok said.
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Strzok waged a similar defense during a contentious public hearing in July of last year. But his comment in the transcript of the closed-door interview are the most thorough to date explaining a text Strzok sent Page saying they could not take the “risk” of Trump getting elected.
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Strzok also explained a text of his from May 2017 in which he said he had “unfinished business” from the Clinton investigation that he hoped to settle in the Trump probe as a reference “to a much broader effort of the government of Russia to interfere with our presidential election” — because Russian operators were using the results of the Clinton investigation “in a way to disrupt our election.” Similarly, Strzok said, an August 2016 text in which Page urged him to stay in his job to “protect the country from that menace” — menace had been a reference to Russian operators, not Trump.
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Strzok said he “very much” regretted his text exchanges with Page, who also spoke with congressional investigators in July 2018; a transcript of those proceedings was released earlier this week. Both characterized the messages as personal exchanges, strongly denying that they affected the work of the FBI
Earlier this month, Collins also released the transcript of the joint congressional panel’s August 2018 interview with Bruce Ohr . Collins said on the House floor Thursday that he intended to release additional transcripts from that GOP-led probe in the weeks ahead, in the name of transparency
The transcript shows Strzok ws asked about decisions made during the Clinton probe, including then-FBI Director James B. Comey’s efforts to draft a memo explaining his rationale for not prosecuting Clinton in advance of interviewing her. Strzok said he was aware of no similar effort to draft a memo explaining a potential decision to charge Clinton ahead of her interview
Strzok also said that Comey initially concluded Clinton had shown “gross negligence” in how she handled classified information — a finding that could lead to charges — but dialed that back to “extreme carelessness” by the time he finished his memo
Asked in general terms if he had “ever been part of the FBI’s efforts to infiltrate a U.S. political campaign” or “been part of an effort to put a spy in a U.S. political campaign,” Strzok said no
Strzok also noted that he wasn’t sure how often the FBI briefed retired personnel about closed cases — as they did in the Clinton email investigation in late October 2016. It was after that call that Rudolph W. Giuliani went on TV claiming to have insider knowledge from FBI agents; Strzok said he knew of no agents talking to Giuliani
Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.