COMPROMISED: Counterintelligence and the Threat of Donald J. Trump

by Peter Strzok. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 350 pp. $30.

In normal times — remember those? — there would be little reason for the American public to know Peter Strzok’s name. In normal times, we would not be reading his memoir. And in normal times, an American president would not be mocking his text messages.

Strzok spent decades as an FBI agent avoiding the spotlight, diligently combating Russian efforts to penetrate and destabilize the United States, eventually becoming deputy assistant director in the bureau’s counterintelligence division. Yet, with his role in some of the era’s most controversial inquiries — concerning Hillary Clinton’s emails and Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election — that spotlight found him, and Strzok got burned. Investigated by the Department of Justice and assailed by President Trump for the personal (and political) texts Strzok sent to an FBI colleague with whom he was having an affair, he lost his privacy, reputation and job. “After a quarter of a century in pursuit of the nation’s enemies,” he writes, “I had been deemed an enemy myself.”

In “Compromised,” Strzok tells his side of this story — or at least those sides he is at liberty to tell and comfortable telling. His early experiences tracking Russian officers who had settled clandestinely in the United States make for riveting reading (and became the glorious television series “The Americans”), but it is his battles in the Trump years that matter here. Unlike the recent memoir by former FBI director James Comey, Strzok offers the view from a few rungs down, in the bureaucratic and investigative trenches, where his rivals might be Russian operatives one day and DOJ overseers the next.

Strzok delivers a compelling tale, though at times a frustrating one, layered with excessive restraint and insufficient self-awareness. The author says he has become more dogmatic regarding right and wrong as he has grown older. Yet the story he tells, and his own role in it, and that of the institution he long served, are trapped in shades of gray.

“Compromised” begins with the author’s recollections of growing up in Iran, Burkina Faso and Haiti, as his family moved for his father’s work, and he connects the upheaval he witnessed to our nation’s present circumstances. “By the time I entered college, I had lived through four revolutions on three continents,” he writes, adding that he “never expected to see the grotesque traits of dictators in Haiti or Iran reflected in my own commander in chief.” Such broadsides against Trump recur throughout “Compromised.” Strzok deems him a compulsive liar, presiding over a “heap of perfidy and treachery,” a leader “gleefully wreaking havoc on America’s political institutions and norms,” even suggesting that he was a “Manchurian candidate” under Russian influence.

But Strzok makes a useful distinction regarding the president’s misdeeds. His primary concern is not that Trump and his aides were actively plotting with the Russians, even if they did not discourage Moscow’s assistance. When special counsel Robert Mueller asked him flat-out, “Is this a coordinated conspiracy?” Strzok remained uncertain. “I was skeptical that all the different threads amounted to anything more than bumbling incompetence,” he writes. “In my view they were most likely a collection of grifters pursuing individual personal interests.”

But it was precisely those personal agendas, Strzok argues, that placed Trump under Russian influence. As candidate and again as president, Trump lied about his business ties with Russia. “The moment Trump said publicly, ‘I have no business dealings with Russia,’ he knew he was lying. Putin knew he was lying, and the FBI had reason to believe he was lying. But American citizens didn’t know that.” Strzok emphasizes. “In this moment Trump became compromised.”

The fact of the business relationships alone was not enough; Trump’s lies about them created the tension from which Moscow could benefit. “They recognized Trump’s need to maintain the facade, and therefore the coercive power behind the deceit,” Strzok writes. “It was a gift to the Russians, and Trump kept giving.”

Being compromised does not mean that the president receives regular instructions from Russia or that he does Putin’s bidding whenever he draws a queen of diamonds. “The compromised liar need not be told what to do,” Strzok explains. “It all unspools without anyone’s ever having to say a word.” Trump’s extramarital affairs, his uncharitable charities and his murky financial background — all such deceptions also compromise him “badly and in a myriad of ways,” Strzok contends. And, in turn, a compromised president pursued policies and adopted positions that Strzok sees as “highly suspicious, highly consistent, and highly advantageous to America’s historic adversary.”

Strzok is as critical of Trump as he is zealous in defense of the FBI, sometimes to the point of contradiction. He is indignant that anyone would question the bureau’s motives for opening particular investigations, even while recalling how colleagues expressed their hope that he could get the goods on Clinton. Strzok constantly praises Comey — “arguably the most gifted communicator I ever encountered in my 25 years of government service,” a man whose “natural eloquence went hand in hand with his intellectual ability” — yet, in his telling, the former FBI director made serious misjudgments that pushed the bureau into increasingly politicized terrain; first when chastising Clinton’s carelessness in handling classified materials even while declining to recommend prosecution, later when informing Congress that the email investigation would be revisited. “With the benefit of hindsight, I think it’s likely that Comey’s July 5 speech and subsequent notification to Congress on the reopening and closing of the investigation changed the election result.” Still, Strzok remains grateful “for Comey’s ethical and moral leadership.”Okay then.

President Trump on May 23 suggested former FBI officials James B. Comey, Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page committed treason. (The Washington Post)

He concludes that the Clinton investigation proved to be largely an “administrative issue,” in part because, whenever classified information appeared in Clinton’s emails, “it was in the context of people doing their job,” not pursuing any nefarious agenda. However, the FBI’s Russia inquiry quickly identified a “wide breadth and volume of connections between the Trump campaign and Russia,” which troubled Strzok deeply. “If the American people had known what we did at the time of the election, they would have been appalled.” But unlike the Clinton matter, the FBI kept the public largely in the dark on its probe of the Trump campaign. “In the light of day on November 9,” Strzok writes, “that disparity of knowledge took on new significance.”

After Trump fired Comey and then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein hired Robert Mueller as special counsel, Strzok joined Mueller’s team — a move that proved short-lived. Mueller personally dismissed Strzok from the special counsel’s office and sent him back to the FBI after his personal text messages to FBI lawyer Lisa Page became part of a Justice Department inspector general investigation of whether Strzok’s political views had biased his work. Strzok refuses to discuss the particulars of the affair in “Compromised,” except to admit that he is “ashamed” of his mistakes, which “harmed my family and my wife.”

It’s an understandable decision — except you can’t sidestep the context in which those texts were sent while also insisting that their true meaning and intent were wildly misinterpreted by the conservative media. Strzok argues, for instance, that his text calling the Russia inquiry an “insurance policy” was meant to counter the argument that investigating Trump was less urgent because Clinton was likely to prevail. It’s a plausible interpretation, and Strzok still thinks the analogy is apt. He is far less convincing when he contends that his message saying Trump would not win because “We will stop it” actually referred to voters writ large opposing Trump rather than, say, “we” in the FBI. “It was an artless comment but conveyed my firm belief that Trump . . . would not be chosen by the American people to become president,” he writes. It’s hard to buy. Strzok doesn’t have to recite pillow talk, just provide deeper context for those exchanges if he wants anyone to believe that they mean something beyond their actual words.

When his texts appeared in the news media, Strzok suspected that some high-level political appointee in the Justice Department was behind the leak. Indeed, his ire against the DOJ grows as the book progresses. Strzok feared that the department’s leaders might destroy key Comey documents after the FBI director was fired. He derides Rosenstein as “out of his depth.” He blasts Attorney General William Barr’s public statement on the Mueller report as a “malicious fabrication intended to protect the president at the expense of truth and the republic.”

After a stint working in the FBI’s human resources department, Strzok was finally dismissed from the bureau. “My counterintelligence career began with Russians, and it ended with Russians,” he writes. Still, he worries that Moscow could heighten its interference in 2020 — altering voting rolls; tampering with vote totals, even on a small scale; hacking into voting infrastructure; and, of course, releasing new kompromat that it’s spent years collecting. “The Russians haven’t gone away,” he warns. And he is concerned that his own experience might undermine the bureau’s willingness to fight back. “If you were an FBI agent today, would you be looking to stick out your neck to show that Russia aims to repeat in 2020 what it did in 2016 — once again with Trump’s explicit encouragement?”

The irony of “Compromised” is that its author suffered the same titular fate. Strzok’s private relationships and personal communications were not manipulated to subvert his investigative work. Instead, their disclosure ended that work altogether and — if he is right — may discourage others from taking it on.

Strzok, of all people, should have seen it coming.

Carlos Lozada is the Post’s nonfiction book critic and the author of “What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era,” which will be published October 6. Follow him on Twitter and read his latest book reviews, including: