Was Strzok’s August Interview Really About McCabe’s Spygate Role?

December 17, 2018 Updated: December 18, 2018

A few days ago, on Dec. 13, we pointed out that a footnote contained within a legal filing by the team of former national security adviser Michael Flynn related not to the Jan. 24, 2017, interview of Flynn, but instead referenced an FBI interview of FBI agent Peter Strzok and his partner—likely Joseph Pientka.

The referenced FD-302—a type of FBI form that is a written summation of an interview—was dated Aug. 22, 2017, almost seven months after Flynn’s Jan. 24, 2017, interview. It clearly reads as quotes by the FBI agents describing events before, during, and after the Flynn interview to an unknown FBI official.

The following day, a filing from the team of special counsel Robert Mueller confirmed our position. Attached to the Mueller filing were several attachments, including an FD-302 dated Aug. 22, 2017, containing information from an interview of Strzok that occurred on July 19, 2017.

One question was answered from the interview of Strzok. An FD-302 of the Jan. 24, 2017, interview of Flynn does exist:

“Strzok conducted the interview and [redacted (probably Pientka)] was primarily responsible for taking notes. Throughout the interview, Flynn had a very “sure” demeanor and did not give any indicators of deception. He did not parse his words or hesitate in any of his answers. He only hedged once, which they documented in the 302. Strzok and [redacted] both had the impression at the time that Flynn was not lying or did not think he was lying.”

On Dec. 17, U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan confirmed the existence of the original Flynn 302 and subsequently ordered the Mueller team to publicly file and immediately release a redacted version of the document.

A final item of note was contained in footnote 1 of the latest filing in the Flynn case:

“Strzok was interviewed on July 19, 2017, in relation to other matters, not as part of the investigation of the defendant or any investigation of Strzok’s conduct.”

If Strzok wasn’t being interviewed on July 19th in relation to the investigation into Flynn or in relation to Strzok’s own conduct, what was the purpose of the interview? Some details from events occurring around the same time frame may provide some answers.

Events From Summer of 2017

On May 9, 2017, Rosenstein wrote a letter recommending then-FBI Director James Comey be fired. The subject of the letter was “Restoring Public Confidence in the FBI.” Comey would be fired that day.

Unknown to anyone in the Trump administration, that same day, Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe was being interviewed by agents from the FBI’s Inspection Division (INSD) regarding apparent leaks that occurred in an Oct. 30, 2016, Wall Street Journal article, “FBI in Internal Feud Over Hillary Clinton Probe” by Devlin Barrett.

McCabe would lie to the INSD agents regarding his participation in the leaks, as later disclosed in the Justice Department (DOJ) inspector general’s report, “A Report of Investigation of Certain Allegations Relating to Former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe.” McCabe would be fired for lying under oath at least three different times and is currently the subject of a grand jury investigation.

McCabe held a pivotal role in what has come to be known as Spygate. He directed the activities of Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page, and was involved in all aspects of the Russia investigation. He was also mentioned in the now-infamous “insurance policy” text message sent by Strzok to Page referencing an apparent meeting in “Andy’s (McCabe’s) office”:

“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 the risk. It’s like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you’re 40.”

At the time, nobody, including the INSD agents, knew that McCabe had lied, nor were the darker aspects of McCabe’s actions fully known. In light of Comey’s firing, McCabe was now the acting FBI director and was immediately under consideration for the permanent position.

A week later, on May 16, Mueller was interviewed by President Donald Trump and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and was appointed special counsel by Rosenstein the next day.

On May 19th, Page and Strzok exchanged texts about the Mueller investigation, noting that as far as collusion, “there’s no big there there.” The two continued to text frequently about the special counsel’s investigation, with Page appearing to join Mueller’s team sometime in late May or early June 2017 and Strzok a short time later, toward the middle or end of June.

On June 29, 2017, Rosenstein signed the final renewal of the FISA warrant on Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. Notably, Rosenstein would later discuss the signing of that particular FISA before Congress, stating, “I’ve reviewed that one in some detail, and I can tell you the information that’s public about that doesn’t match with my understanding of the one that I signed, but I think it’s appropriate to let the inspector general complete that investigation.”

It’s at this point that things began to get interesting. On July 14, 2017, DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz suddenly decided to respond to a letter sent by a group of Democratic senators, calling for an investigation into the recusal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions on any Russia-related matters, more than four months previous.

Horowitz’s letter appears to indicate that he was evaluating the direction of his investigation:

“We are continuing to assess what, if any, additional review would be appropriate for the OIG to undertake and will update you as appropriate.”

What makes this somewhat innocuous-sounding response notable is that it likely marks the date when Horowitz first uncovered the incriminating texts between Strzok and Page.

We know this because of a timeline Horowitz laid out in a Dec. 13, 2017, response to a letter from Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). Grassley and Johnson were specifically asking for more information regarding the timeline and means of discovery of the texts sent by Strzok and Page. From Horowitz’s Dec. 13 letter:

“After finding a number of politically-oriented text messages between Page and Strzok, the OIG sought from the FBI all text messages between Strzok and Page from their FBI-issued phones through November 30, 2016, which covered the entire period of the Clinton e-mail server investigation.

The FBI produced these text messages on July 20, 2017. Following our review of those text messages, the OIG expanded our request to the FBI to include all text messages between Strzok and Page from November 30, 2016, through the date of the document request, which was July 28, 2017. The OIG received these additional messages on August 10, 2017.”

At some point prior to Dec. 20, 2017, Horowitz had uncovered texts between Strzok and Page that caused him sufficient alarm to request all texts between the two during the Clinton email investigation. Upon receipt and review of these texts, Horowitz then requested all available texts on July 28, 2017, from the pair and received these additional texts 13 days later on Aug.10, 2017.

Horowitz didn’t provide the initial discovery date of the Page/Strzok texts but given the subsequent receipt times of seven to 12 days, it would seem reasonable to assume that Horowitz made the initial discovery sometime prior to his July 14, 2017, letter to the Democratic senators regarding the possibility of any additional investigative review.

Discovery of the Text Messages

How Horowitz came to discover the first series of texts is particularly interesting and provides an appropriate backdrop for surrounding events.

Lisa Page served as special counsel to McCabe while he was FBI deputy director. According to the inspector general’s February 2018 report on McCabe, sometime in October 2016, McCabe authorized Page to leak information to Barrett—Page did so, thinking she had been granted legal/official authorization.

Page, when confronted with McCabe’s denials of authorization, produced texts refuting the deputy FBI director’s assertion. This is what likely led to the inspector general uncovering the thousands of texts between Strzok and Page.

On July 19, 2017, Strzok was interviewed by an unknown senior assistant special counsel member and an unknown FBI supervisory special agent. As noted in the FD-302, “the purpose of the interview was to collect certain information regarding Strzok’s involvement in various aspects of what has become the Special Counsel’s investigation.”

On July 27, 2017, Inspector General Horowitz notified Mueller of the discovery of thousands of text messages sent between Page and Strzok, which resulted in Strzok being removed from the investigation the following day.

On July 28, 2017, McCabe lied to Horowitz while under oath regarding authorization of the leak to The Wall Street Journal. At this point, Horowitz knew McCabe was lying, although Horowitz didn’t yet know of the May 9 INSD’s interview with McCabe.

Page 18 of Horowitz’s report shows us what happened:

“On Friday, July 28, 2017, the OIG interviewed McCabe under oath in connection with its ongoing review of various FBI and Department actions in advance of the 2016 Election. The primary focus of the interview was to determine McCabe’s awareness of the existence of certain text messages between Special Counsel and DAD [Strzok] that the OIG had recently discovered.

During the course of the interview, the OIG showed McCabe text messages dated October 27, 28, and 30 from Special Counsel to DAD, indicating that Special Counsel had been in contact with WSJ reporter Barrett and appeared to have been a source for the October 30 WSJ article.”

Horowitz made his initial discovery of the Strzok/Page texts no later than early July 2017. It would appear at least some of these texts implicated or referenced McCabe. Horowitz would receive the second batch of texts on July 20 but had yet to receive the final batch that was later provided to him on Aug 10—which brings us back to that footnote from the Flynn legal filing:

“Strzok was interviewed on July 19, 2017, in relation to other matters, not as part of the investigation of the defendant or any investigation of Strzok’s conduct.”

This disclaimer is somewhat countered by the language contained within the actual FD-302 of the interview with Strzok:

“The purpose of the interview was to collect certain information regarding Strzok’s involvement in various aspects of what has become the Special Counsel’s investigation.”

Based on surrounding events, it seems a reasonable case to make that the purpose of Strzok’s July 19, 2017, interview was multifaceted, but probably centered around the actions of Strzok’s boss, Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe.

Jeff Carlson is a CFA® Charterholder. He worked for 20 years as an analyst and portfolio manager in the high-yield bond market. He runs the website TheMarketsWork.com

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