The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Peter Strzok’s ‘insurance policy’ text message looks bad. But it doesn’t look like a smoking gun.

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III departs after a closed-door meeting with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Update: Shortly after this post went up, the Wall Street Journal reported that Strzok's text was intended to address Page's belief that the Russia investigation could take its time because Trump wouldn't be elected president. The report cites anonymous "people familiar with his account." The reporter who broke the story, Del Quentin Wilber, explained on Twitter why this explanation is plausible.

Fox News is suggesting Robert S. Mueller III's investigation may constitute a “coup” against President Trump. Republicans in Congress are increasingly warning about anti-Trump bias in the FBI and Justice Department. The effort to delegitimize the Russia investigation has found its alleged smoking gun: Demoted FBI agent Peter Strzok's “insurance policy” text message to a fellow agent with whom he was having an affair.

Ben Shapiro's Daily Wire called it a “possible plot to take down Trump before [the] election.” The National Review's Andrew C. McCarthy wrote in The Post that it “crosses the line between political banter and tainted law enforcement.” Conservatives like former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer and Townhall's Guy Benson are accusing the mainstream media of ignoring it — apparently because Mueller's investigation shan't be criticized.

It's 100 percent true Mueller and his probe aren't above reproach and shouldn't be exempted from real scrutiny. The Strzok disclosures — which, by the way, the New York Times and The Washington Post first reported two weekends ago — clearly represent an embarrassing episode. That Strzok was sharing anti-Trump text messages with FBI lawyer Lisa Page has lent credence to the argument that the probe is stocked with people who are out to get the president. (Strzok was removed from the Mueller probe for the texts.)

This particular text message, while raising some valid questions, according to my reading seems to be less than a canary in a conspiracy theory coal mine. Here's Strzok's full text, which was released along with many others last week:

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.

This text is from August 2016, and “Andy” may refer to Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe. The argument among some on the right is that “insurance policy” refers to some kind of deep-state conspiracy to take down Trump, and that it possibly even implicates McCabe, the No. 2 official at the FBI whose wife, Jill, happened to be a Democratic candidate for the Virginia state Senate last year.

But there are a few holes in the argument. The first is that “insurance policy” part doesn't refer to anything specifically except the concept of getting life insurance before you turn 40 years old. It is hugely unlikely you would die before the age of 40, Strzok seemed to be saying, but you get insurance anyway because even that slim possibility would be catastrophic for your family. This has been reported all over conservative media as Strzok saying they needed some kind of insurance policy against Trump winning — i.e. the Russia investigation or perhaps even taking it easy on Hillary Clinton in her email investigation — but it's not nearly so directly stated. It seems like Strzok was using the metaphor as a commentary on how fear of a Trump presidency was rational even if it seemed to be a remote possibility at the time.

The second hole is life insurance isn't something that prevents anything. If you are looking to prevent yourself from dying — or prevent Trump from being elected president — taking out insurance is not really going to change that outcome; it is just going to soften the blow once it happens.
And, the third hole is that, if they were indeed talking about a conspiracy to take down Trump, it seems unlikely this would have been the only text message about it. We have hundreds of text messages, and Strzok and Page clearly did not plan for any of this to become public. So if they were scheming, wouldn't their effort to prevent Trump's presidency or dethrone him if he won come through in some of the other texts about just how much they hated Trump — rather than just one ambiguously worded text? The two of them did not seem to be discussing such tactics, beyond general venting about Trump.

These texts clearly reveal a level of bias that would be a major red flag in any investigation. That's why Strzok was removed from Mueller's Russia probe and why these texts are really problematic. Believing the “insurance policy” text constitutes some kind of smoking gun is to make some real logical leaps.

As with all conspiracy theories, it is difficult to completely disprove it, so plenty will read what they want into it. Trump's critics have often been too eager for their own Russia smoking gun, as I have written, and it seems it is now happening on the other side as well. These things are always worth a healthy dose of skepticism.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) has written a letter saying we need an explanation of this text message, so perhaps we will know more in the relatively near future.