In his first interview since being fired from the FBI, former counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok articulated his fears that a combination of political influence and limited investigatory scope has obscured details of President Donald Trump’s Russian ties that may never come to light.
“When the special counsel’s office was set up, I told both Director Mueller and the senior folks in his team that, while I understood that they weren’t mandated to conduct a counterintelligence investigation, someone at the FBI had to do it,” he said in an interview in The Atlantic published Friday.
“At the time I left the team, we hadn’t solved this problem of who and how to conduct all of the counterintelligence work,” he added. “My worry is that it wasn’t ever effectively done.”
Strzok briefly served on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team, but was removed and ultimately fired after the Department of Justice released texts in which he was critical of the President, making him a target for accusations from the right that he was actively working against Trump. Trump has since reveled in referring to Strzok as a “lover” due to his extramarital affair that was revealed in the texts.
Strzok doesn’t blame the Special Counsel for failing to plumb the depths of Trump’s likely years-long entanglements in Russia. He said that the investigation Mueller was carrying out was quite narrow and meant to center on violations of criminal law, not on intelligence activity.
“A counterintelligence investigation looks beyond whether laws have been broken, to how people can be pressured,” he explained. “With Trump, the immediate thing that leaps out are his financial entanglements.”
That part of the investigation, Strzok fears, has “died on the vine.”
He attributes the lack of appetite to pursue those leads within the FBI as a direct result of Attorney General Bill Barr’s insistence that that agency began the investigation into Russia’s infiltration of the Trump campaign improperly.
Barr has called the FBI probe “one of the greatest travesties in American history” and frequently teased the findings of John Durham, a prosecutor who is investigating its origins. He said of the Durham investigation last month that “we are trying to get some things accomplished before the election.”
Later in the interview, Strzok, who also led the team that investigated Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while serving as Secretary of State, expressed the frustration felt by his team as they were forced to work the case in part due to the fixation of Republican lawmakers.
“There was absolutely, I think, a sense of frustration, as I write in the book, that we had this magnificent team, yet we were, at the end of the day, conducting a glorified email-mishandling case,” he said.
And he painted a wholly different kind of frustration when he was working on the Trump-Russia investigation and was told by the Obama administration to keep the work quiet with an entirely opposite goal in mind: to avoid influencing the 2016 election.
He recounted then-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe telling the team to get as much information as possible, but to do it quietly.
“But there is an inherent tension between those goals,” Strzok said. “So when deciding how aggressively we were investigating, who to put on the team, what always won, if there was a conflict, was: Keep it quiet. We don’t want this investigation getting out. And of course, that was frustrating.”