President Trump at times seems to consider the investigation into possible coordination between his campaign and Russian actors to be a wobbly house of cards that will topple if he plucks out just the right one. For some time, he and his allies have been picking at one particularly promising component: a text message exchange between two FBI employees who were working on the bureau’s investigation, in which mention is made of an “insurance policy” in the event that Trump won the 2016 election.
With the release of testimony from those two employees — attorney Lisa Page and agent Peter Strzok — the “insurance policy” argument for the illegitimacy of the Russia investigation gained new energy. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) tweeted a Fox News story about Page’s testimony.
“This deserves more attention!” he wrote. “FBI Mistress, Lisa Page, confirmed to House Judiciary, there was an anti-Trump Insurance Policy and it’s the fake Russian investigation! She admits there was almost no evidence on collusion, yet they continued with WITCH HUNT!”
Trump tweeted Paul’s message to his followers, adding, “I agree with Rand Paul. This is a total disgrace and should NEVER happen to another President!”
There are several things about Paul’s tweet, though, that should be treated with skepticism. The first is his referring to her as “mistress” — a reference to the relationship that she and Strzok carried on during the campaign. It’s a line that Trump uses to cast her in a negative light, which is a bit odd given that they are now championing her testimony.
Except that her testimony doesn’t say what Paul’s tweet suggests, nor does the Fox News story claim that it does. In fact, the testimony offered by Page and Strzok about the text presents a straightforward and believable explanation for a message that’s become a shorthand for Trump’s claims about what he says is a prejudiced investigation against him.
The story begins with that text message. It was sent Aug. 15, 2016, from Strzok to Page.
“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,” he wrote. “It’s like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before 40.”
The “Andy” begin mentioned is former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe, and the “he” who is potentially getting elected is, of course, Trump. This text message has been used to argue that Strzok, McCabe and Page were putting together an “insurance policy” to undermine Trump.
The timing of it, though, is important. Aug. 15, 2016, was about two weeks after the FBI launched its counterintelligence investigation into Trump’s campaign and possible coordination with Russia. That investigation, code-named Crossfire Hurricane, stemmed from the FBI being informed that a Trump campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, had informed an Australian diplomat in April of that year that he’d been told Russia had incriminating information on Trump’s opponent in the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton.
At issue at the time of the meeting referenced in the text, both Strzok and Page told congressional investigators, was how forcefully they should push in trying to uncover possible links between Trump’s team and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s.
“[W]e had sort of quite regular conversations about trying to balance getting the answer as quickly as possible, right, because if the answer is this is a guy just being puffery at a meeting with other people, great, then we don’t need to worry about this, and we can all move on with our lives,” Page said. “If this is, in fact, the Russians have co-opted an individual with, you know, maybe wittingly or unwittingly, that’s incredibly grave, and we need to know that as quickly as possible.”
Page was arguing at the time that urgency wasn’t needed.
“[T]here was one school of thought, of which Lisa was a member,” Strzok testified, “saying the polls, everybody in America is saying Secretary Clinton is the prohibitive favorite to be the next President, and therefore, based on that, these allegations about the Trump campaign, we don’t need to risk that source. We can just take our time. We can run a traditional years-long counterintelligence operation, and we don’t really need to worry because he’s not going to be elected.”
This wasn’t just a question of how much time and effort they put into the investigation. It was also a question about methods. When it’s conducting an investigation, the FBI can either poke around surreptitiously, going out of its way not to tip off the target of the investigation that anything is going on. Or the agency can be direct.
“I think the most aggressive course of action would be to go out and, you know, simply do very overt things, start talking to people and interviewing people,” Strzok said. “The trouble with that is — there are many problems with that. One, people don’t frequently tell you the truth when you talk to them. A lot of things that you might find by doing some background information will allow you to conduct a far more effective interview, and certainly going out and doing that, people are immediately going to be aware that somebody told the FBI the nature of this predicating information, which would be a considerable harm and cost potentially to that source.”
“[M]y recollection from the text — was part of a discussion that we had in the context of having received information from an extremely sensitive source,” he said at a later point, “and that the debate — one of the debates on how to pursue this information was how much risk to put that sensitive source in because, in my experience, the more aggressive an investigation, the greater chance of burning or compromising that source.”
That was the concern. Pushing hard and fast to get answers on the Russian collusion question would probably tip off the Russians, potentially putting long-term FBI sources as risk. Was it worth that — especially for a candidate who was likely to lose the election and therefore could be investigated more quietly over the longer term?
“What this text reflects is our sort of continuing check-in almost with respect to how quickly to operate, what types of tools to use, trying to be as quiet as possible about it,” Page said, “because we knew so little about what — whether this was true or not true or what was going to come, because this is, as you said, so nascent in the investigation, and then ultimately trying to balance that against my view, in this case, which was we don’t need to go at a total breakneck speed because so long as he doesn’t become president, there isn’t the same threat to national security, right.”
Notice the point she makes about the evolution of the investigation: This was early, and they were still trying to figure out an approach.
“I mean if he is not elected, then, to the extent that the Russians were colluding with members of his team, we’re still going to investigate that even without him being president, because any time the Russians do anything with a U.S. person, we care, and it’s very serious to us,” she continued. “But if he becomes president, that totally changes the game because now he is the president of the United States.”
Her view, in short, as she described it to one committee member: “Let’s be reasonable, let’s not, you know, throw the kitchen sink at this because he’s probably not going to be elected, and so then we don’t have quite as horrific a national security threat than if we do if he gets elected.”
“Maybe we do [have time],” he explained, “but if candidate Trump is elected, we have months, and we may find ourselves in a position where we have these allegations potentially about people who are being nominated for senior national security roles, and then we’re in a really bad spot because we don’t know whether these allegations are true or false; we don’t know the extent of these allegations and the truth and how extensive or not. So my advocacy was we need to pursue these cases in a way that will allow us to be responsible and protecting the national security of the United States.”
And that’s where his analogy came in.
“And so — and the point — and the point, the analogy I am drawing is, you know, you’re unlikely to die before you’re 40, but nevertheless, many people buy life insurance,” he explained. “The similarity is that, regardless of what the polls are saying, that Secretary Clinton is the favorite to win, however likely or not it is who’s going to win, just like life insurance, you have to take into account any potential possibility. And it was simply — it was simply: You need to do your job based on something, regardless of whether it’s highly likely or not?”
Strzok and Page were also asked directly whether the “insurance policy” text meant what Trump and Paul suggest — that they had a plan in place should Trump win. Each denied it.
“Did you mean that you had an insurance policy to prevent Trump from becoming president?” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) asked Strzok.
“No,” he replied.
“And would you — you just said ‘no.’ Would you be willing to say that under oath?” she asked.
“I would be,” he replied.
“Can you understand why somebody reading that would believe that the insurance policy was a way to stop Donald Trump from becoming president or preventing him from continuing on as president based upon improperly using the aggressive investigation that you refer to here?” then-committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) asked.
“Mr. Chairman, I would tell you, one, it wasn’t,” Strzok replied. “And two, I think the most common-sense reading of that, particularly given my explanation, makes — it is the most persuasive, simplest understanding of that, because it’s true, and that it was not.”
“I know many people have said, you know, there’s this inference,” he added, “and many people can have many interpretations of it, but I’m — I wrote it and I’m telling you what I meant.”
For Trump, though, the explanation offered by Strzok and Page is inconvenient. His goal isn’t to understand how the Russian investigation began and the debates underway at that point. His goal is to topple that house of cards.