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FBI Fires Peter Strzok, Political Lightning Rod Who Criticized Trump

Aug 13, 2018
Originally published on August 13, 2018 10:48 pm

Updated at 7:24 p.m. ET

The FBI has fired an embattled special agent who was removed from the Russia inquiry after internal investigators discovered he had criticized then-candidate Donald Trump in text messages with another bureau official.

Peter Strzok had remained on the FBI payroll until his employment finally was terminated on Friday, his attorney said Monday morning.

The bureau's Office of Professional Responsibility had recommended that Strzok be reprimanded with a demotion and 60-day suspension, but the office of Deputy FBI Director David Bowdich decided instead that Strzok should be fired altogether.

In a statement provided to NPR Monday evening, the FBI said 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." The FBI continued: "OPR reviewed the investigative materials, as well as the written and oral responses of Mr. Strzok and his counsel, and issued OPR's decision. The Deputy Director, as the senior career FBI official, has the delegated authority to review and modify any disciplinary findings and/or penalty as deemed necessary in the best interest of the FBI."

President Trump tweeted Monday afternon saying Strzok "finally" had been let go. "The list of bad players in the FBI & DOJ gets longer & longer," the president also wrote. "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!"

Strzok had been reassigned off counterintelligence investigations following the discovery of his messages, which included a vow to FBI attorney Lisa Page that "we'll stop" Trump from being elected, complaints about the "smell" of Trump supporters and other such comments sent in real time during the 2016 presidential race.

But he had remained an employee, including apparently following the FBI's decision to have him escorted out of its Washington, D.C., headquarters in June.

Strzok's attorneys called his dismissal "not only a departure from typical bureau practice" but a decision that contradicted earlier commitments by FBI Director Christopher Wray to follow standard process in dealing with its personnel matters.

Strzok has been the target of months of attacks by Trump and his supporters over the text messages, which Strzok exchanged on his official government mobile phone with Page. The two were having an extramarital affair and used their work devices to conceal that from their spouses, they've acknowledged.

Trump and his Republican allies — particularly in the House of Representatives — argue Strzok and Page embody what they call the "bias" within the FBI and Justice Department that is really at the heart of the department's Russia investigation, which in Trump's construction is a "witch hunt" out to frame him.

Strzok acknowledged to the House Judiciary Committee that he had exchanged all the messages with Page that had been discovered by Justice Department investigators but said the First Amendment protected his right to hold those views and denied he had ever let his beliefs affect any of his official actions.

The face of "bias"

Strzok and Page's story came to light just one day after former national security adviser Mike Flynn concluded his guilty plea in the Russia case with Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller in December 2017. The attacks about "bias" have continued ever since, including through testimony by Strzok and Page before Congress.

The two have appeared in closed-door sessions before the House Judiciary Committee, and Strzok also testified once in public, on July 12, before a joint hearing of the House Judiciary and House Oversight committees. He told lawmakers that their attacks on federal law enforcement have helped the overall Russian campaign to sow discord within the United States.

Republicans did not like that. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., chairman of the House Oversight Committee, upbraided Strzok for failing to see how badly he had undercut confidence in the FBI.

"Agent Strzok has a most unusual and largely self-serving definition of bias ... despite common sense, doesn't think he's biased," Gowdy said. "He thinks calling someone 'destabilizing' for the country isn't biased; he thinks promising to protect the country from someone he hasn't even begun to investigate isn't biased; he thinks promising to 'stop' someone he is supposed to be fairly investigating ... isn't biased."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The FBI has fired a veteran agent who investigated Russia's interference in the 2016 election and then became a target for President Trump. Special Agent Peter Strzok became a lightning rod because of text messages he sent that were critical of the president. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Strzok's dismissal marks the end of a long slide. He'd been taken off the Russia investigation last summer when supervisors became aware of his politically loaded text messages. Two months ago, he was escorted out of the FBI's headquarters. President Trump cheered Strzok's firing with a tweet this afternoon that said, finally. Trump had often criticized the special agent, as in this interview with CBS News last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He was a disgrace to our country. He was a disgrace to the FBI. So when I look at things like that - and he led that investigation or whatever you call it.

HORSLEY: Trump has often called the investigation of Russia's interference in the 2016 election a witch hunt, and he points to Strzok's text messages as justification for that charge. Strzok has acknowledged sending messages critical of the president to a former FBI attorney, Lisa Page, with whom he was having an extramarital affair. But during a contentious congressional hearing last month, Strzok insisted that had no bearing on the investigation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETER STRZOK: Let me be clear. Unequivocally and under oath, not once in my 26 years of defending our nation did my personal opinions impact any official action I took.

HORSLEY: Strzok says that goes for both the Russia probe and an earlier investigation of Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server, a case on which he also worked. Trump today called the FBI's Clinton email probe a sham and said it ought to be reopened.

According to Strzok's attorney, the disciplinary arm of the FBI had recommended only a demotion and a 60-day suspension for the special agent, but the bureau's deputy director decided to fire Strzok instead. His attorney calls the dismissal a response to political pressure and adds the FBI and the American people deserve better. The attorney echoed Strzok's own testimony to Congress last month when he said Russia's election interference had been wildly successful, shaking faith in America's institutions and sowing discord throughout the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STRZOK: Today's hearing is just another victory notch in Putin's belt and another milestone in our enemies' campaign to tear America apart.

HORSLEY: Tonight the FBI issued a statement explaining the decision to fire Strzok as within the deputy director's authority and, quote, "in the best interest of the FBI." Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.