— Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), in an interview on ABC’s “This Week,” May 26, 2019
Peter Strzok was an FBI agent and Lisa Page was an FBI attorney in 2016. They were also carrying on an affair and exchanged thousands of texts. Those texts have now emerged as a central talking point for President Trump and his Republican allies to claim the investigation into ties between his campaign and Russia was a secret “coup” to thwart his election. Some of the texts reflect a deep animus toward Trump and the way he conducted himself during the 2016 campaign.
Strzok, who was fired in August, had a key role in both the investigation of former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s private email server and initially the Russia probe. Page resigned from the FBI in May 2018.
James B. Comey, the former FBI director who was fired by Trump in 2017, ridiculed the GOP argument in a recent Washington Post article. “If we were ‘deep state’ Clinton loyalists bent on stopping him, why would we keep it secret?” Comey asked.
Cheney, the third-ranking Republican in the House, referenced two of the texts in a recent interview: “They were saying things like we must stop this president, we need an insurance policy against this president.” She then went on to argue that it “sounds an awful lot like a coup and it could well be treason.”
The coup and treason language could be viewed as an opinion. But is her opinion based on a reasonable interpretation of what the texts said?
Strzok and Page have been extensively interviewed by members of Congress, and the inspector general of the Justice Department has issued a report and testified before Congress. So let’s dig into the record.
Aug. 8, 2016, exchange of texts
Page: “[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!”
Strzok: “No. No he’s not. We’ll stop it.”
On the face of it, this is a disturbing response from Strzok: “We’ll stop it.” But of course, he and the FBI did not thwart Trump’s election. Arguably the reopening of the Clinton email investigation 11 days before the election ensured Trump’s narrow victory. “Strzok, alleged architect of the treasonous plot to stop Trump, drafted the letter I sent Congress,” Comey noted.
Strzok told the inspector general that “he did not specifically recall sending it [the text], 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.” He added that “had he — or the FBI in general — actually wanted to prevent Trump from being elected, they would not have maintained the confidentiality of the investigation into alleged collusion between Russia and members of the Trump campaign in the months before the election.”
In a closed-door interview with House members on July 13, 2018, Page said she had been extremely upset by Trump’s treatment of the Khan family, whose son had been killed in action. (Khizr Khan, the father, had lashed out at Trump at the Democratic National Convention.) “I was upset and bothered and so I made the ‘he’s not really going to become president, right’ and ‘no, we’ll stop it’ was simply an attempt to comfort me,” Page said.
In a closed-door interview with House members on June 27, 2018, Strzok insisted that to his “best recollection” the “‘we’ is my sense that the American people would not elect candidate Trump.”
Inspector General Michael Horowitz indicated he thought that was an after-the-fact justification. “I think it’s clear from the context, it’s, ‘we’re going to stop him from becoming president,’” he testified to the House Oversight and House Judiciary committees on June 19, 2018. “I think any individual in this country should be concerned about that kind of language.” The inspector general’s report said the text implied a “willingness to take official action to impact the presidential candidate’s electoral prospects.”
The inspector general’s report said the discovery of the text caused investigators to consider whether Strzok took actions in the Clinton probe based on his personal political views.
“We found that Strzok was not the sole decision maker for any of the specific investigative decisions” in the case and that “we further found evidence that in some instances Strzok and Page advocated for more aggressive investigative measures than did others” on the Clinton team. In regard to the Clinton case, “our review did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that these political views directly affected the specific investigative decisions,” the inspector general said. (Whether the creation of the Russia probe was affected by political views is still being investigated by the inspector general.)
Page said in her interview that “I completely understand the interpretation” that the text was a pledge to thwart Trump’s ambition to win the presidency, but she reiterated that “there was no leak of the investigation” that would have been damaging to his candidacy.
Aug. 15, 2016, text
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. It’s like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before 40.”
Cheney described this as an “insurance policy against the president.” But Page and Strzok said it reflected a debate about how aggressive the probe into possible Russian contacts should be. (The reference to Andy is Andrew McCabe, at the time the deputy director of the FBI.)
Two weeks before this text, on July 31, Strzok had opened “Crossfire Hurricane,” a counterintelligence probe. The Australian government had reported that George Papadopoulos, a Trump foreign-policy aide, told Alexander Downer, then the top Australian diplomat to the United Kingdom, during a May meeting that the Russian government had “damaging” material on Clinton and was prepared to release it late in the election. In response, the FBI decided to investigate.
Meanwhile, on Aug. 14, the day before the text, the New York Times had reported about a secret ledger in Ukraine that tied $12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments from a pro-Russian party to Paul Manafort, then Trump’s campaign manager — possibly another sign of Russian infiltration in the campaign. (Manafort was ousted five days later.)
“That text represented a debate on information that we had received from an extraordinarily sensitive source and method, and that typically when something is that sensitive, if you take action on it you put it at risk,” Strzok publicly testified on July 12, 2018.
The issue was whether an important source could be burned. “Given that Clinton was the ‘prohibitive favorite’ to win, Strzok said that they discussed whether it made sense to compromise sensitive sources and methods to ‘bring things to some sort of precipitative conclusion and understanding,’” the inspector general’s report said.
Page, in her closed-door interview with lawmakers, said she did not remember this meeting. But she remembers a continuing discussion about how fast to go. She said it was her view that “we don’t need to go at total breakneck speed because so long as he doesn’t become president, there isn’t the same threat to national security.” The FBI would still investigate the case, but it was not as urgent.
Strzok agreed with Page’s recollection. “There 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.”
Horowitz, in his testimony, was more skeptical of Strzok’s account. “That was his explanation,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say we had concerns about what his intentions were there.”
“The fact that the IG did not find evidence that Strzok’s texts biased the investigation does not mean that it did not bias the investigation,” a Cheney aide said. “These inquiries are largely about judgment calls made on the part of the people running them, and what the individuals they are investigating claim those messages mean in the aftermath. . . . When you have law enforcement officials who are at the helm of critical investigations like this saying those things, it raises questions about their motives and conduct.”
The Pinocchio Test
The language in the texts is certainly disturbing, especially the Aug. 8 exchange. But that is mitigated by the fact that there is no evidence FBI officials actually tried to derail Trump’s election. If anything, the FBI’s actions helped ensure it. The “insurance policy” text is more explainable, reflecting a debate within the FBI about how aggressively to pursue the investigation. (Strzok appears to have lost that debate, as the probe did not really pick up speed until after the election.)
Cheney has taken the worst possible interpretation of the texts and then used it to offer an opinion about possible treason or a coup. But the texts, especially about the insurance policy, and the initial IG report do not support that interpretation.
Rather, the texts show evidence of unprofessionalism and reflect a debate within the agency about how to conduct the investigation. Meanwhile, the inspector general’s report shows that Strzok and Page at times pushed for harder measures in the Clinton investigation than others, and the decision-making was not biased in favor of her electoral prospects.
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