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Nobody did more damage to Robert Mueller than Peter Strzok

FBI agent Peter Strzok was fired over his politically charged texts, becoming the third high-ranking FBI official involved in the Hillary Clinton and Russia probes to be fired. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)
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Peter Strzok has been fired by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. As The Post’s Matt Zapotosky reports, that makes him the third high-ranking FBI official involved in the Russia investigation to be terminated, along with former FBI director James B. Comey and the bureau’s now-former No. 2, Andrew McCabe.

This has led some to defend Strzok or at least question his firing — suggesting that his downfall is merely the latest result of an effort to obstruct justice and tear down all those who know what really happened in 2016. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) even said Strzok deserved a Purple Heart for absorbing so many GOP attacks.

They should resist this impulse. Arguably no one apart from President Trump himself has done more damage to the Russia investigation than Strzok. And Strzok’s apparent decision to fight his termination -- he’s got a legal defense fund and is now tweeting -- is only going to prolong this ugly chapter.

The news of Strzok’s ouster comes from his lawyer, who said the bureau overruled the recommendation of its employee-discipline office. That office had suggested a 60-day suspension and a demotion as punishment for Strzok’s anti-Trump and other text messages. Those texts with FBI lawyer Lisa Page, with whom Strzok was having an affair, were discovered by an inspector general. They were shared with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III in mid-2017, and Mueller fired Strzok from the Russia probe immediately.

Among the most infamous texts:

  • "No. No he won’t. We’ll stop it.”  —  about Trump becoming president (August 2016)
  • “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.” (May 2017)
  • "I just know it will be tough at times. I can protect our country at many levels, not sure if that helps….”  — after Lisa Page said Strzok is "meant to protect the country from that menace.” (August 2016)
  • “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." (August 2016)

This last one was the first text message to blow up, and I was among those who suggested that it wasn’t as inherently nefarious is its critics made it out to be. I still think it — and the “secret society” text — were oversold by critics of the Mueller probe.

But the full thrust of Strzok’s text messages can’t be denied. He argued that it never affected his official actions and, thus, the texts weren’t “biased." But that misunderstands the meaning of the word “bias"; the damage is done merely by raising suspicions about your motives.

The inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, said Strzok’s tweets implied “a willingness to take official action," and it’s difficult to argue too hard against that. Mueller removed Strzok from the investigation for a very good reason; the special counsel knew how problematic this was, and he wanted to get as far away from it as possible.

Whether Strzok’s termination was warranted is now a question that is apparently going to be the subject of a legal battle. But employment law is one thing; politics is another. As with his combative testimony to Congress, Strzok seems bent upon explaining away his problems and trying to recover his good name rather than sinking into the background and hoping people eventually forget about him. And he’s got defenders. Some suggested that his firing meant that his First Amendment rights to express his political opinions had been violated. Others suggested that this might be the culmination of an underhanded effort to undo anyone who investigated Trump and might know something.

Whatever it is, Strzok gave his critics more than enough ammunition. (And as with McCabe, this started with an IG report that clearly faulted him rather than with political opponents.) Just because there have been so many dubious attacks on the Russia probe — including with regard to Strzok’s texts — does not absolve Strzok of culpability. Nor do such attacks mean supporters can dismiss the allegations out of hand. Strzok’s text messages did more to breath life into the conspiracy theory that there is a “deep state” looking to take Trump down than anything else. That doesn’t mean the conspiracy is real; it just means he messed up. And yet there has been a conspicuous lack of desire among Democrats to criticize Strzok, for fear of looking like they are confirming the conspiracy.

They’re probably just hoping he goes away. He seems to have other plans.