Strzok’s CBS Story on Russia Probe Origins Clashes With Facts

September 7, 2020 Updated: September 8, 2020

News Analysis

The FBI investigation of the Trump campaign for alleged collusion with Russia didn’t start the way former high-level FBI official Peter Strzok portrayed it during a recent CBS News interview, available records show.

Strzok would be the one most in the know, since, as the head of the FBI counterintelligence operations in 2016, it was Strzok who wrote the opening document that launched the probe, naming it Crossfire Hurricane.

But his summary during the interview of the basis for the investigation doesn’t fit the facts, not even those in the official record he helped create.

Strzok reiterated the official narrative that the investigation was based on information about a conversation Australian diplomats had in May 2016 with Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos.

He said the Australians conveyed the information to the FBI after Trump said during a July 27, 2016, press conference:

“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press. Let’s see if that happens.”

In what he later described as a joke, Trump was referring to emails of his opponent, Hillary Clinton, which she had deleted from a controversial private server she had used for government business as secretary of state.

“When [the Australian diplomats] saw that statement by Trump, that triggered the memory of that conversation they had with Papadopoulos,” Strzok said.

“So Donald Trump, with his own words, brought this investigation down on himself?” CBS News national security correspondent David Martin, who conducted the interview, said.

“According to what the foreign government told us, yes,” Strzok said.

This clashes with information from the Dec. 9, 2019, report by the Justice Department’s Inspector General (pdf).

The report stated that one of the “foreign friendly government” officials already relayed the information about Papadopoulos to a U.S. government official on July 26, 2016—a day before Trump made his comments. That official passed the information to an FBI legal attache at one of the U.S. embassies, who sent it to the FBI Philadelphia field office, and then, on July 28, 2016, it was sent to FBI headquarters.

Strzok described the Australian information as follows:

“Papadopoulos told them that somebody on the Trump campaign had received an offer that said the Russians had material that would be damaging to Hillary Clinton and to Obama and they offered to coordinate the release of that information in a way that would help the Trump campaign.”

But this isn’t what Strzok wrote in the opening document of the probe, which states that one of the diplomats said that Papadopoulos “suggested” that the campaign received “some kind of suggestion” that Russia could help it by anonymously releasing some information damaging to Clinton.

That’s why Attorney General William Barr criticized the basis for the probe as a “suggestion of a suggestion.”

The Australian diplomats were then-Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer and his aide, Erika Thompson. Downer recalled the May 10, 2016, conversation with Papadopoulos in multiple media interviews. But he never mentioned anything about Russia suggesting it would help Trump. Downer didn’t say that Moscow was making an offer to the Trump campaign, much less an offer to coordinate something.

The only point Downer acknowledged was that Papadopoulos “thought the Russians may release information—might release information—that could be damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign at some stage before the election.”

Strzok’s document says that Downer’s information was “related” to the alleged hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), during which thousands of its emails were stolen and released in 2016 by WikiLeaks. But according to Downer, Papadopoulos made no mention of hacking, emails, or the DNC.

Papadopoulos has denied any recollection of having made the comment in the first place.

The day before Downer talked to Papadopoulos, former Judge Andrew Napolitano aired on Fox News an unsubstantiated rumor that the Kremlin possessed emails from Clinton’s controversial private server and was considering releasing them. The FBI probe of Clinton’s server was a prime topic of political gossip in May 2016. It isn’t clear how the FBI surmised that the alleged “suggestion” was about the DNC rather than what Fox had broadcast the day before.

Strzok was fired from the FBI for exchanging text messages on government-issued phones with his then-paramour Lisa Page, who was a special counsel to FBI then-Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. The texts showed strong animus toward Trump and sympathy toward Clinton at a time when Strzok was leading the probe of Trump’s campaign and was also involved in the probe of Clinton’s email server. In one text, Strzok assured Page that Trump wouldn’t become the president.

“We’ll stop it,” he wrote.

Strzok told Martin that investigations have “conclusively proved” that he wasn’t using the probe as a tool to go after Trump.

The IG report stated that the review “did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced … [the] decision to open Crossfire Hurricane.”

But that didn’t pertain to Strzok personally, but rather to his then-supervisor, Bill Priestap, who told the IG it was him who approved the probe’s opening.

The IG, Michael Horowitz, told Congress that the lack of “documentary or testimonial evidence” doesn’t rule out political bias influencing the probe.

Strzok also denied impropriety regarding a spying warrant the FBI took out on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page in 2016.

“You get people who are overworked, who make mistakes,” Strzok said, though he added that the mistakes were “inexcusable.”

The IG found a litany of “significant inaccuracies and omissions” in the warrant, which heavily relied on the infamous Steele dossier, a collection of unsubstantiated rumors about Trump colluding with Russia to sway the 2016 election, which was spread to the FBI, the State Department, Congress, and the media by an operative paid by the DNC and the Clinton presidential campaign.

Barr said it was more than just mistakes. FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith has recently pleaded guilty to falsifying a document related to the warrant. The document confirmed that Carter Page had a relationship with the CIA, but Clinesmith altered it to indicate the opposite.

U.S. Attorney John Durham is conducting an investigation into the FBI’s handling of Crossfire Hurricane.

Follow Petr on Twitter: @petrsvab