Trump’s True Relationship With Russia Has Never Been Revealed

Trump’s True Relationship With Russia Has Never Been Revealed
Getty / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

Fate offered Peter Strzok a place in history that he never sought. The son of an Army officer, Strzok also served in the United States military before joining the FBI’s counterintelligence operation in 1996. He excelled at his job: In 2001, he was part of the team that tracked and arrested a network of Russian “illegals” who had been living in the U.S. for many years under deep cover. But those were not the cases that brought him into the limelight. Notoriety came later, when Strzok, as the bureau’s chief of counterespionage, led investigations first into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and then into Russian interference in the 2016 American election campaign.

Strzok has always argued that he, James Comey, and the rest of the FBI tried, from the beginning, to treat both of these cases apolitically: They were focused on following the law. But after the Department of Justice released some private texts in which he was critical of President Donald Trump, he was accused not just of bias, but of seeking to deliberately discredit the president. Strzok, who also worked on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team in its early months, became a hate figure for everyone who sought to distract the public from the facts about Russia’s intervention and the Trump team’s eager embrace of it. “I have devoted my adult life to defending the United States, our Constitution, our government and all our citizens,” Strzok writes in the introduction to Compromised: Counterintelligence and the Threat of Donald J. Trump. “I never would have imagined—could not have imagined—that the president of the United States, the most powerful man in the world, would single me out with repeated attacks of treason, accusing me of plotting a coup against our government.”

As I read Strzok’s book, I found myself unexpectedly angry, because his narrative exposes an extraordinary failure: Despite multiple investigations by the FBI, Congress, and Mueller’s team, Americans have still never learned the full story about the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia or Trump’s own decades-long financial ties with Russia. Four years have passed since the investigation began. Many people have been convicted of crimes. Nevertheless, portions of reports produced by Mueller, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and others remain redacted. Investigations are allegedly ongoing. Details remain secret. Meanwhile, valuable FBI time and money were spent investigating which email server Hillary Clinton used—a question that, as it turned out, had no implications for U.S. security whatsoever.

Strzok himself was not exactly reassuring: He does not believe that Trump’s true relationship with Russia was ever revealed, and he now worries that it won’t ever be. It’s not clear that anyone ever followed up on the leads he had, or completed the counterintelligence investigation he began. He doesn’t say this himself, but after speaking with him I began to wonder if this is the real reason the Department of Justice broke with precedent in his case by not just firing a well-respected FBI agent but publicly discrediting him too: Strzok was getting too close to the truth.

This is the first interview he has given since he left the FBI. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Anne Applebaum: Peter, your book is called Compromised: Counterintelligence and the Threat of Donald J. Trump. That title implies that you do believe Trump has a compromised relationship with Russia. What is your evidence for that claim?

Peter Strzok: In counterintelligence, when we say somebody is “compromised,” that doesn’t necessarily mean they are a Manchurian candidate or a spy who has been wittingly recruited. I don’t think that Trump, when he meets with Putin, receives a task list for the next quarter. But I do think the president is compromised, that he is unable to put the interests of our nation first, that he acts from hidden motives, because there is leverage over him, held specifically by the Russians but potentially others as well. For example, when he is on the campaign trail saying I have no financial relationships with Russia, while at the very same time, his lawyer Michael Cohen is in Moscow negotiating a deal for a Trump Tower, there are people who know that. Vladimir Putin knows that. As it happened, the FBI knew it. But nobody in the American public knew it. So the moment that he says it, everybody who knows about that lie has leverage over him.

[Conor Friedersdorf: Donald Trump gave Russia leverage over his presidency]

But that one incident is part of a pervasive pattern of conduct. Look at Trump’s failure to disclose his taxes, look at the story of his telephone call with the president of Ukraine. Time and time again, Trump is fighting tooth and nail to avoid things becoming public. If you’re a foreign intelligence service and you are able to use all of your tools to collect information—to intercept emails, intercept phone calls, recruit people or place people in the president’s orbit who can supply information—you are going to find out about the things that Trump is trying so hard to conceal because they would be damaging to him. That gives you coercive leverage. And that begins to explain why he has time and time again done these inexplicable things that have no positive outcome for U.S. national interests.

Applebaum: For example?

Strzok: Like, for example, why did he not take stronger action against the Russians for placing bounties on American soldiers in Afghanistan? Why has he, for no apparent reason, moved 11,000 American troops out of Germany? Or here’s an obscure one: Why did he parrot Russian propaganda and call Montenegro a “very aggressive” nation when that country had just joined NATO? Everybody knows damn well that Donald Trump couldn’t find Montenegro on a map. Who’s putting these ideas in his head?

Applebaum: Or why doesn’t he speak out against the poisoning of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, or why hasn’t he spoken up for the democracy movement in Belarus? Do you think that there are other ways in which Trump is beholden to foreign powers?

Strzok: It seems clear to me from public reporting that there are more.

Applebaum: And why haven’t they been investigated or even addressed by any official sources? The FBI? The Department of Justice? Congress?

Strzok: I don’t want to comment specifically on any of them. There are always a variety of reasons why you don’t disclose something: because it’s classified, because it’s the subject of an ongoing investigation, or even because it was investigated and found to be without merit. Or perhaps because it should have been pursued and was not, because of improper political influence.

Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

Applebaum: The issue in your book that bothered me the most was the imbalance of resources and attention in 2016 to the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation of Trump, and the FBI’s investigation of Clinton’s email. In your book, you make a striking observation: “If Clinton’s email had been housed on a State Department system, it would have been less secure and probably much more vulnerable to hacking than it was on her private server.” Yet you also say that the case involved dozens of talented people who could have been working on other, more important cases—like, for example, the investigation into the Trump campaign. It looks to me like the FBI gave this case such a high priority because of pressure from Congress.

Strzok: Once we opened that investigation, which I think was a defendable decision, it was incumbent on us to do a thorough job. That’s true of every investigation. But in this case, we were looking at the presumptive Democratic nominee for the president of the United States, and we all knew this was going to be unpacked and disassembled, looked at up and down and back and forth.

Applebaum: Exactly. You spent months focused on a secondary problem with no real national-security implications, because you knew that there would be scrutiny from the Republican media and the Republican Congress.

Strzok: I don’t think we had any other choice, and I don’t know that I would agree that this changed the way we did the investigation. 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. But that didn’t change our behavior.

[Read: What the WikiLeaks emails say about Hillary Clinton]

Applebaum: While Republicans in Congress and elsewhere were openly putting huge pressure on the bureau to investigate the Clinton case and find something criminal, the Obama administration was very careful not to appear to exert any influence and not to talk about Russian intervention in the election. That must have had an effect on how people were investigating that case.

Strzok: We bent over backwards to avoid disclosing the fact that we were investigating people affiliated with the Trump campaign. That’s the ludicrous irony behind all these notions of a “deep-state coup.” Everything we did in the summer and fall of 2016 was designed with the primary goal of not having the investigation leak out, precisely because we didn’t want to become part of the political process. This notion that we were all out to undermine Trump’s campaign just flies in the face of every single fact from the ground in 2016—as well as some that still aren’t known. Also, to be clear: There was never a time when I or anybody on the team felt any pressure from the Obama White House about any of the cases we were investigating.

Applebaum: Yes, that’s what I’m asking about. There was pressure from one side, but not from the other.

Strzok: In general, I think they feared any louder statements would be pitched as a partisan attempt to sway the election. And of course, Trump was making this a talking point on the campaign trail: The elections are rigged. They’re out to get me. They’ll stop at nothing to damage me. I also think, frankly, whether consciously or subconsciously, the administration’s assumption was: Clinton’s going to win this thing. So why bring on this added risk when, in the end, it’s going to be okay?

I remember at some point talking to the FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, and he said, Look, you need to get as much information as you can, as fast as you can, and as quietly as you can. But there is inherent tension between those goals. 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.

Because in the worst case, we knew we were facing the prospect that the candidate of a major party for the presidency of the United States is in a witting intelligence relationship with a hostile foreign power, and that’s horrifying. For anybody, it should be horrifying; for counterintelligence professionals, that’s unprecedented. Simply the fact that we couldn’t eliminate that possibility was horrifying. As the months and weeks and days ticked down towards November, that fear, along with the pressure on us not to let any of it get out, was extraordinary.

Applebaum: Was the FBI really neutral throughout this process? You mention in the book one agent who said, “I hope you get that bitch,” referring to the Hillary Clinton case.

Strzok: Almost everybody in the FBI has a political opinion. And almost everybody in the FBI, certainly on the agent side, tends toward conservative Republican. The idea of national security, of law and order, is front and center for most agents.

But in my career, I never saw an instance in which the opening or closing of a case, or any decision about the investigation of a case, was made based on anything other than objective facts. I never heard anyone say “Make something up” or “Cut corners” or “Don’t include this fact.” That was just not part of the culture. That sounds a little Boy Scout–ish, but that is the organizational ethos that I saw day in and day out. Every agent has an opinion; I have an opinion. And every single day when people walk in the door, they leave that opinion outside.

Applebaum: And yet you yourself were used by the FBI and the Department of Justice as a scapegoat. You have said that the release of your personal texts was not just unlawful, but “deliberate.” That implies that there were some politics behind that decision.

Strzok: Look, I think it was illegal. I’m suing the FBI and DOJ right now, arguing that my firing and the release of my texts were illegal and violated the Constitution as well as the Privacy Act. It absolutely was political. I think there is within DOJ and the FBI the motivation not to get on the wrong side of a vengeful president.

[Read: The strange tale of Peter Strzok]

Applebaum: What does it feel like to have your personal life made public, to have private messages suddenly become the topic of a national political debate?

Strzok: It’s been horrible. I know my actions played a part in that. Still, it’s been horrible, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

Applebaum: Do you think that the president’s deeply personal attacks on you, McCabe, Alexander Vindman, and others will scare public servants in the future? Will they be more cautious, less likely to investigate powerful people?

Strzok: I know from people I keep in touch with that the personal attacks have had a chilling effect on employees in the government and, I have to imagine, on those considering public service. There’s no way it couldn’t. That’s the goal.

It’s not that government servants lack courage or don’t want to do the right thing. It’s that Trump has shattered the norms of presidential behavior in a way that impacts not just individuals, but governmental organizations themselves. Neither can protect themselves in ways that have worked in the past. The investigative independence of the FBI is under severe stress, but I think it’s holding. I worry four more years of Trump threatens significant, long-term harm.

It’s not just Trump. It’s partisans in Congress and in the media, and the online harassment and even outright death threats they inspire. Remember, Trump told [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky that [U.S. Ambassador Marie] Yovanovitch was “going to go through some things.” Now Trump darkly crows about the investigation of the investigators, with a menacing refrain of “We’ll see what happens.” Nothing is off-limits. This is the behavior of authoritarians.

Applebaum: Let’s talk about Russia, your area of speciality. You write that 2016 was the year that the FBI first realized that social media can be used as a tool in foreign influence campaigns. Had the bureau not run into that problem before?

Strzok: We were slow to pick up on the evolution of what the Russians call “active measures.” The Russians, and the Soviets before them, had always used disinformation, whether planting fake documents or seeking to use information that is either skewed or outright inaccurate to influence perceptions.

What we didn’t appreciate was the radical way that the internet and the evolution of social media would improve their ability and the effectiveness of active measures. Folks on the counterterrorism side saw early on how Islamic extremists were using videos online to cause homegrown self-radicalization within the United States and elsewhere. They were aware of it, and knew that it was really effective. I remember looking at that and thinking, That’s a really tough problem, and Good luck. What I didn’t do, what none of us did, was say: “If a radical Islamic terrorist can do this, what could a state actor do?” We also didn’t realize that the Russians were already doing this at home and in their immediate neighborhood well before 2016.

Thoughtful journalists, thoughtful State Department officers, CIA officers saw this. And yet none of us took the next step and said, “Okay, so what about our elections?”

Applebaum: How do you see Russian tactics changing?

[Read: Putin is well on his way to stealing the next election]

Strzok: The Russians have become much more skilled at carrying out operations that can’t easily be attributed to them. If, back in the days of the Politburo, there was a hierarchical organization chart that had the Ministry of Defense and the intelligence services and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, each of which played their coordinated role in executing Russian foreign policy, now we have a messy process, driven more by money. You have people within the formal state apparatus interacting with oligarchs, with various elements in organized crime, plus people within the intelligence community floating in and out of all of these different sources of power.

Once, the FBI was interested in conversations that American officials had with identifiable KGB agents within a known, defined governmental organizational chart. But now, what if somebody in the presidential administration is meeting with an oligarch on a yacht in Sochi? How do you target that? There’s not some write-up of that meeting sitting in Moscow. There’s not some classified email that’s reporting the results of the meeting.

We’re getting better, but we’re not where we need to be to address the reality of the Russian exercise of state power.

Applebaum: One of many things that frustrated me about the Mueller report was that it seemed to ignore precisely that aspect of modern Russian influence operations. The fact is that Mueller decided not to look at Donald Trump’s multiple Russian connections, going back three decades. He didn’t include the long-standing relationships with Russian businessmen. He didn’t include the oligarch who bought one of Trump’s houses at a much inflated price—a gesture that looks an awful lot like a bribe—or the Russians who have been shoring up Trump’s businesses through anonymous purchases of apartments. This meant that the investigation missed the most fundamental part of the Trump-Russia relationship, which is the one that preceded 2015. I know that you weren’t part of the investigation to the end, but maybe perhaps as an informed outsider, you could help me understand why this part of the story was not told.

Strzok: Mueller’s investigation was never going to deal with those issues. The special-counsel regulations are centered around violations of criminal law. They don’t encompass any sort of intelligence activity. Secondly, Mueller’s appointment order was really, really limited. It talks about connections with the Russian government. It doesn’t say “Russians.” From a legal, definitional context, those are two radically different things. Thirdly, although Mueller understands counterintelligence, his history is as an attorney. I think he saw his role as a prosecutor looking at violations of law; he did not think he was tasked with understanding the national-security vulnerabilities of Trump, his campaign, or his administration.

A counterintelligence investigation looks beyond whether laws have been broken, to how people can be pressured. With Trump, the immediate thing that leaps out are his financial entanglements. Are some of them improper? Does somebody therefore hold leverage over him? But Trump, at the very beginning of the Mueller investigation, had already drawn a red line, saying, My and my family’s financial dealings are off-limits. And if you go there, he implied, I’m going to fire you.

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 needed to do it. At the time I left the team, we hadn’t solved this problem of who and how to conduct all of the counterintelligence work. My worry is that it wasn’t ever effectively done.

Applebaum: A recent New York Times report suggests that the Justice Department secretly took steps in 2017 to narrow the investigation, precisely so that it would not touch on the president’s long-standing relationship with Russia.

Strzok: During the time I worked at the Special Counsel’s Office, I didn’t feel such a limitation. When I discussed this with Mueller and others, it was agreed that FBI personnel attached to the Special Counsel’s Office would do the counterintelligence work, which necessarily included the president. But that’s an extraordinarily complex task, one of the most difficult counterintelligence investigations in the FBI’s history.

[David A. Graham: America is fine with collusion]

Perhaps the FBI is somehow carrying out a comprehensive survey, with the full involvement of the CIA and NSA and the entire U.S. intelligence community. But the New York Times article reinforces my worry that it largely died on the vine, and no wonder: When you’ve got an attorney general who is saying, day in and day out, that there was no cause to launch such an investigation in the first place, then it’s pretty unlikely that anybody in the senior leadership of the FBI, not to mention any agent or analyst at a lower level, is going to pursue it in a robust way.

Applebaum: Let me ask you about one very confusing element of this story, namely the dossier provided by the British former agent Christopher Steele. You have said many times that this dossier was not the reason you opened the investigation into the Trump campaign. By the time it emerged, the investigation had already begun, based on other kinds of stories, including that of the Australian high commissioner in London, who heard George Papadopoulos bragging about his links to Russia in a wine bar. But what impact did the Steele report have on your investigation?

Strzok: The Steele report was a problem for the investigation, because it sent people off on a series of wild-goose chases. That problem got worse after it was published by BuzzFeed. When it became public, it was salacious, it had specific detail, and it very much became almost a dispositive test: Here’s what’s alleged to have happened, and if it happened, boy, it’s horrible—we’ve got a traitor in the White House. But if it isn’t true, well, then everything is fine. It framed the debate in a way that was actually harmful.

The report was very typical of information that the FBI often receives. It comes from several sources, including some suspect sources. Some of it is bullshit, and some of it is rumor, and some of it is disinformation. From our perspective, some of it was a distraction: It didn’t talk about George Papadopoulos, or much about Paul Manafort or Michael Flynn, or all the things going on in the social-media environment, and these were the things we were focused on. There was a lot about Carter Page, who in the end made up, I think, seven pages of Mueller's whole report. Carter Page was a tiny little slice of this whole huge host of activity.

So some people have sought to use the weaknesses of the Steele reporting to try and cast aspersions against the entirety of the FBI’s massive investigation. These efforts have been very disingenuous, very distorting, and very successful.

Applebaum: Tell me what you think of the recent efforts to vindicate General Flynn. Do those have merit?

Strzok: No. What the Department of Justice is doing now, walking back his guilty plea, is an egregious miscarriage of justice.

Look, I don’t know what is in General Flynn’s head. What I do know is that when we interviewed him—and this is described in the book—just outside the Oval Office, he repeatedly told us things that were not the truth. We were asking him about phone calls he had had with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, calls where he had discussed the Russian response to the sanctions that the U.S. had just applied. We had listened to the calls; he knew we had listened to them. We tried to trigger his memory, multiple times, by using phrases he’d used in those conversations. And yet he kept denying that he had ever discussed them. He then didn’t tell the truth to two judges, and to the vice president.

Why? I don’t know. I will note that the Mueller investigation asked Trump, in written questions, whether he had discussed those conversations with Flynn. And he just didn’t answer.

We also uncovered deeply concerning work Flynn had done for the government of Turkey, and of course [Barack] Obama made a point of warning Trump that his superiors had found some of his behavior troubling. But the fundamental question lurking beneath all that is: Did Flynn lie to us in order to cover up for Trump, perhaps for instructions Trump gave him to speak to Kislyak?

Applebaum: Do you think that Flynn is compromised in the same sense that you think Trump is compromised?

Strzok: I don’t know the extent to which subsequent investigation uncovered things that were not known. My sense at the time was that Flynn was a patriotic American, was a decorated career Army officer who served his country well. But I still can’t understand his statements to us in the West Wing.

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