Politics

Trump vs. Strzok

It’s the embattled FBI agent, not the president, who models American values.

Peter Strzok testifies before a joint committee hearing on Capitol Hill on Thursday.
Peter Strzok testifies before a joint committee hearing on Capitol Hill on Thursday.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

At his press conference in Helsinki on Monday, President Trump couldn’t bring himself to say anything critical of Vladimir Putin. Instead, Trump attacked Peter Strzok, an FBI agent who helped lead the investigations of Hillary Clinton’s emails and Russian interference in the 2016 election. Trump told reporters that while he was in Belgium on Thursday, meeting with NATO leaders and supposedly preparing for Monday’s summit with Putin, he watched Strzok’s testimony at a House hearing back home. “If anybody watched Peter Strzok testify,” said Trump, “it was a disgrace to the FBI, it was a disgrace to our country, and you would say that was a total witch hunt.”

In truth, anyone who watched Strzok (the name is pronounced struck) testify saw just the opposite: an honest law enforcement officer standing up to a corrupt president. And that’s why Trump attacked him. Trump doesn’t want Americans to get ideas or inspiration from Strzok. He doesn’t want them to see what backbone looks like. I’ll tell you what it looks like: Republicans tried to put Strzok on trial, and Strzok put Trump on trial instead.

The hearing focused on the now-infamous texts Strzok exchanged in 2016 and 2017 with his then-paramour, FBI attorney Lisa Page. Strzok apologized for the circumstances: for cheating on his wife, for snarking about some Trump supporters, and for exchanging the texts on FBI work phones, which led to a controversy that has damaged the credibility of the FBI and the Russia inquiry. But Strzok destroyed the central charge against him: that he skewed the investigations.

Strzok acknowledged that like most people, he has political opinions. He argued that cops, like jurors, are simply obliged to set aside those opinions when assessing evidence. He challenged lawmakers to show that his opinions had affected any investigative decisions. They couldn’t. Strzok cited the Justice Department inspector general’s report on the Clinton investigation, which found no evidence that he had done anything to favor Clinton or hurt Trump. He noted that immediately after learning that some of Clinton’s emails were on a laptop belonging to former Rep. Anthony Weiner, he assigned agents to check it out. And despite having known before the election about the investigation into the Trump campaign, he hadn’t leaked it.

As Republicans grilled Strzok, they discredited their own caricature of him as a Democratic partisan. They attacked the FBI for neglecting a batch of classified material that theoretically could have implicated Clinton. Strzok, in response, pointed out that in internal deliberations, he had called for searching that material. They decried a 2017 text in which Strzok had warned that there might be “no big there there” in the Russia investigation. In reply, he noted that the message showed he hadn’t prejudged the case. The IG report found that Strzok had advocated the use of warrants, subpoenas, and other aggressive measures against Clinton. At the hearing, he also defended then–FBI Director James Comey’s decision to reveal the reopening of the Clinton investigation in October 2016.

Strzok explained that two things protect the FBI from bias. One is a culture of leaving politics outside the job. If that culture were to fail, he observed, the bureau has a second safeguard: an internal system of checks and balances. “At every step, at every investigative decision, there were multiple layers of people above me … and multiple layers of people below me,” he testified. “They would not tolerate any improper behavior in me, any more than I would tolerate it in them.” The IG report confirmed this, finding that key investigative decisions were collective and that Strzok determined none of them.

These cultural and practical safeguards stand in implicit contrast to the corruption of Trump, his White House, and much of his administration. But when pressed about his texts, Strzok became more explicit. The reason why people like Strzok call Trump a terrible person, it turns out, is that Trump is a terrible person.

In an attempt to humiliate Strzok, Rep. Darrell Issa ordered him to read some of his texts.
These included “OMG, he’s an idiot,” “How is Trump other than a douche,” and “Trump is a disaster. I have no idea how destabilizing his presidency would be.” Strzok, in response, explained that when he wrote the text about destabilization, “That came on the heels of a speech where then-candidate Trump said he didn’t know whether or not the United States should honor its commitment to mutual defense under NATO.” Issa and his colleagues hastily changed the subject.

Rep. Trey Gowdy pressed Strzok about a text in which he wrote of Trump’s campaign: “We will stop it.” Strzok explained that the “we” referred to voters. He said he’d written that text “in response to a series of events that included then-candidate Trump insulting the immigrant family of a fallen war hero—and my presumption, based on that horrible, disgusting behavior, that the American population would not elect somebody demonstrating that behavior to be president.” This answer prompted a rebuke from another Republican, Rep. Paul Gosar. “You got very angry in regards to the Gold Star father,” he told Strzok. “That shows me that it’s innately a part of you and a bias.”

In these and other exchanges, Strzok defended country, law, and order, leaving Republicans to assail those values as biased. He reminded lawmakers that he had “spent 26 years putting on a gun, putting my life at risk for this country.” He reprimanded those who “tear down the underpinnings of … law and order” and who attack “the FBI or the U.S. intelligence community and compare them with Nazis.” He warned the committee that FBI agents, because of their belief in national defense and prosecuting crime, had been, “up until the current date, very strongly Republican.”

These values, not partisanship, accounted for the priority Strzok had placed on the Russia investigation before the 2016 election. “The information we had, which was alleging a Russian offer of assistance to a member of the Trump campaign, was of extraordinary significance,” he testified. When Republicans challenged him about a text he’d written in May 2017, after Trump fired Comey—“We need to open the case,” Strzok had told Page—Strzok pointed out that the situation was obviously suspicious:

The president said initially that [the firing] had occurred because of a memorandum written by the deputy attorney general looking at his conduct in the Clinton investigation. And then, days afterwards, pivoting and telling Russian diplomats and Lester Holt that it was because of the Russia investigation and [that] a huge burden had been taken off his shoulders.

Strzok went after Congress, too. He accused lawmakers of using their oversight of the executive branch to attack the FBI for “doing its job.” Thursday’s hearing, he told them, was “another victory notch in Putin’s belt and another milestone in our enemy’s campaign to tear America apart.”

Unable to break Strzok, his interrogators exploded. Several, having defended accused molesters such as Trump and Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, denounced Strzok as an adulterer. They hurled accusations at him and, as the hearing went on, refused to let him respond. “I don’t give a damn what you appreciate,” Gowdy told him. Rep. Tom Marino sputtered at Strzok: “You have an answer for everything.” Rep. Karen Handel fumed, “You have a really awesome talent for filibustering. You might want to think about running for the Senate.”

Perhaps he should. On a day when Trump exposed to the world his subservience to Putin, the United States needs a hero. It won’t be any of the collaborators or invertebrates in the congressional GOP. It won’t be Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer or House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who can barely mumble their objections. It’ll be someone with a record of integrity and national service who confronts the menace in the White House with clarity and courage. Someone like Pete Strzok.