Deep within the report released Thursday from the inspector general for the Justice Department is the answer to a question that’s been floating around for six months: Why did Lisa Page and Peter Strzok, two officials with the FBI, engage in a months-long conversation disparaging 2016 presidential candidates and discussing FBI cases from their work cellphones?
Page explained to investigators that the reason was a personal one: “[T]he predominant reason that we communicated on our work phones was because we were trying to keep our affair a secret from our spouses.”
Since Strzok and Page wanted to keep their relationship private on a personal level, their interactions became a central part of the national conversation. For months, texts between the two have trickled out, raising questions — to various degrees of seriousness — about Strzok’s work in particular, given his involvement in both the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server before the election and the investigation into Russian interference during and after it. The investigation devotes a great deal of attention to the texts between Strzok and Page, given that those messages at times hint at bias against President Trump, which might suggest political bias on the part of Strzok and, therefore, the FBI.
The inspector general’s report states that there was no “documentary or testimonial evidence that improper considerations, including political bias, directly affected the specific investigative decisions” made at the FBI. However, the report also states that investigators “were deeply troubled by text messages sent by Strzok and Page that potentially indicated or created the appearance that investigative decisions were impacted by bias or improper considerations.”
Given that, it’s worth highlighting both what Page and Strzok said and how they explained their conversations to investigators. We’ve done so below in chronological order.
Various messages disparaging Trump
Between August 2015 and the election, Page and Strzok shared more than a dozen messages disparaging Trump. One called Trump an “idiot,” another a “enormous d*uche” and a third “a f—ing idiot.” (Our censoring on the latter message, not theirs.)
Strzok described these messages as a “personal opinion talking to a friend” and insisted that his opinions “never transited into the official realm. In any way. Not in discussions, not in acts.” Page added an additional reason: “I guess I didn’t feel like I was doing anything wrong. I’m an American. We have the First Amendment. I’m entitled to an opinion.”
April 1, 2016
Page: “So look, you say we text on that phone when we talk about hillary because it can’t be traced, you were just venting bc you feel bad that you’re gone so much but it can’t be helped right now.”
Page told investigators that this message was meant to help Strzok explain to his wife why he was exchanging text messages with Page on his personal phone.
July 24, 2016
Page: “Rudy is on the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court]! Did you know that? Just appointed two months ago. …”
Strzok: “I did. We talked about it before and after. I need to get together with him.”
The “Rudy” here is U.S. District Court Judge Rudy Contreras. Contreras presided over former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s plea deal earlier this year. As a member of the FISC, he was uniquely positioned to grant Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants, like the one granted in October 2016 against Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
“At no time,” Strzok told investigators, “did I ever with Judge Contreras think of or in actuality reach out for the purpose of discussing any case or trying to get any decision, provide any information, or otherwise influence him with regard to any investigative matter that I or others were involved with.”
Page wondered whether Strzok’s relationship with Contreras would necessitate that Contreras recuse himself from decisions brought by Strzok. This was cited by some as evidence that the pair were hoping to keep Contreras in the mix to be leveraged by Strzok.
“All of this discussion is a consideration of doing the right, appropriate, ethical thing,” Strzok said to investigators. “It is the polar opposite of what is being suggested by some. This is, this is the flip side of that saying we want to make sure we’re absolutely doing the right thing.”
July 26, 2016, during the Democratic convention
Page: “Yeah, it is pretty cool. [Clinton] just has to win now. I’m not going to lie, I got a flash of nervousness yesterday about trump. The sandernistas have the potential to make a very big mistake here …”
Strzok: “I’m not worried about them. I’m worried about the anarchist Assanges who will take fed information and disclose it to disrupt. We’ve gotta get the memo and brief and case filing done.”
Strzok said that the memo he described was the one summarizing the findings of the Clinton email server investigation, called a letterhead memorandum or LHM.
“When asked if his text message meant that the LHM needed to be completed because he was worried about Trump and wanted Clinton to win,” the report reads, “Strzok said, ‘No, not at all.’ ”
July 31, 2016, on the opening of the investigation into possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russia
Strzok: “And damn this feels momentous. Because this matters. The other one did, too, but that was to ensure we didn’t F something up. This matters because this MATTERS. So super glad to be on this voyage with you.”
“The other one” here referred to the Clinton investigation, Strzok said. The Russia investigation was more important, he told investigators, because “if there is criminal activity [in the Clinton investigation], it is comparatively limited, versus allegations which are of the most extraordinarily, potentially grave conduct.”
Aug. 6, 2016, responding to a report about Trump’s disparagement of a gold-star family
Page: “This is not to take away from the unfairness of it all, but we are both deeply fortunate people. … And maybe you’re meant to stay where you are because you’re meant to protect the country from that menace.”
Strzok: “Thanks. It’s absolutely true that we’re both very fortunate. And of course I’ll try and approach it that way. I just know it will be tough at times. I can protect our country at many levels, not sure if that helps….”
The menace, Page told investigators, was “the potential threat to national security that Trump or his people pose if [the] predication [for the Russia investigation] is true,” the report reads.
Strzok said that the menace wasn’t a reference to Trump.
“I take, I take the menace as, again, I view any foreign interference with our electoral process to be a threat, to be a violation of law,” he said, according to the report. “So when I see menace, I, you know, is that Trump, is that Russian interference, is it the combination of the two?”
Aug. 8, 2016
Page: “[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!”
Strzok: “No. No he’s not. We’ll stop it.”
Strzok told investigators he didn’t remember the message, but that “he believed that it was intended to reassure Page that Trump would not be elected, not to suggest that he would do something to impact the investigation.” Both noted that the fact that investigation into Trump’s campaign was never revealed before Election Day suggests that there was no plan to prevent Trump from winning.
Nonetheless, the report isolated this exchange as “indicative of a biased state of mind but, even more seriously, implies a willingness to take official action to impact the presidential candidate’s electoral prospects.”
“This is antithetical to the core values of the FBI and the Department of Justice,” the report continues.
Aug. 15, 2016
Strzok: “I want to believe the path you threw out for consideration in Andy’s office — that there’s no way he gets elected — but I’m afraid we can’t take that risk. It’s like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you’re 40.”
The “insurance policy” text has achieved mythical status among those looking for evidence that Strzok and, by extension, the FBI investigated Trump because of political bias. Neither Page nor “Andy” — former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe, to whom Page served as legal counsel — offered investigators insight into what Strzok meant.
Strzok explained that the message probably dealt with a conversation about handling allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Part of that discussion, he said, centered on whether “it made sense to compromise sensitive sources and methods to ‘bring things to some sort of precipitative conclusion and understanding,’ ” given the likelihood that Clinton would win.
“Strzok said the reference in his text message to an ‘insurance policy’ reflected his conclusion that the FBI should investigate the allegations thoroughly right away, as if Trump were going to win,” the report reads.
Sept. 2, 2016
Page: “potus wants to know everything we are doing”
Both Strzok and Page indicated that the request from then-President Barack Obama to be informed about an investigation centered on Russian interference, where “we” referred broadly to the intelligence community.
May 18, 2017, shortly after the appointment of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III
Strzok: “For me, and this case, I personally have a sense of unfinished business. I unleashed it with [the Clinton investigation]. Now I need to fix it and finish it.”
Strzok was added to Mueller’s team where he served until the text messages with Page came to light. The messages on this day center on whether joining that team was the proper decision.
About the message above, Strzok told investigators that he wasn’t saying that he hoped to make up for having “unleashed” Trump via the election-influencing Clinton email investigation by “fixing” the problem via the Russia investigation.
“It wasn’t so much the investigation about [Clinton],” he said, “but then how it played into, how it was being portrayed in the political environment, how it was being leveraged by the government of Russia and all the social media disseminations.” What he wanted to fix, he said, was the misperception that Russia hadn’t tried to influence the election.
Page suggested that the “unfinished business” was “a reflection of our Director having been fired” — a reference to the firing of James B. Comey, whose termination as FBI director by Trump led to Mueller’s appointment. That firing was predicated on Comey’s handling of the Clinton investigation.
Strzok: “you and I both know the odds are nothing. If I thought it was likely I’d be there no question. I hesitate in part because of my gut sense and concern there’s no big there there.”
“As we looked at the various actors,” Strzok said to investigators about connections between Russia and people associated with the Trump campaign, “the question [was,] … was that part of a broad, coordinated effort, or was that simply a bunch of opportunists seeking to advance their own or individual agendas … which of that is it?”
During this exchange, Strzok also seemingly weighed become assistant director against “an investigation leading to impeachment.”
Page “said she interpreted Strzok’s reference to impeachment to mean he wanted to be involved in the Russia investigation because it was so important ‘it might lead to impeachment,’ not because ‘it will lead to impeachment,” the report reads.
Then there was this exchange:
Nov. 9, 2016, the day after Trump won the presidency
Page: “Are you even going to give out your calendars? Seems kind of depressing. Maybe it should just be the first meeting of the secret society.”
From the report:
“Page stated that the ‘calendars’ referenced in this text message were ‘funny and snarky’ calendars of Russian President Vladimir Putin in different poses, such as ‘holding a kitten.’ Page told us that Strzok had previously purchased these calendars as ‘dark gallows humor.’ Page stated that the reference to the ‘secret society’ was also a ‘dark sort of’ humor about Trump winning the election and concerns she and Strzok had about Trump.”
Strzok explained that his feeling about the calendars the day after was “like, God, you know, is that something you would want to, you know, want to do right now?”
He did not. The report does not indicate what happened to the calendars.