The firing of Peter Strzok – the FBI agent who sent a series of anti-Trump texts to a woman he was having an affair with even as he was part of investigations into Hillary Clinton’s private email server and Russia’s attempted interference in the 2016 election – seems, on its face, to be very big news.
After all, Strzok has been front and center in President Donald Trump’s attempts to discredit special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference and the possibility of collusion and obstruction for months now. “Russian Collusion with the Trump Campaign, one of the most successful in history, is a TOTAL HOAX,” Trump tweeted earlier this month. “The Democrats paid for the phony and discredited Dossier which was, along with Comey, McCabe, Strzok and his lover, the lovely Lisa Page, used to begin the Witch Hunt. Disgraceful!”
And a report from the Justice Department’s inspector general on the FBI’s conduct during the 2016 campaign made clear that Strzok promised “we’ll stop it” when FBI employee Lisa Page, who he was having an affair with, asked whether Trump was going to be elected president.
In truth, however, the Strzok firing changes very little – on either end of the investigation.
Let’s start with Trump and his allies. Does anyone believe that now that Strzok has been fired that the President will cease his attacks on the Mueller probe? Or that Trump will be mollified in any way by the firing? He won’t. Just check out the tweet Trump sent Monday in the immediate aftermath of Strzok’s firing:
“Agent Peter Strzok was just fired from the FBI - finally. The list of bad players in the FBI & DOJ gets longer & longer. Based on the fact that Strzok was in charge of the Witch Hunt, will it be dropped? It is a total Hoax. No Collusion, No Obstruction - I just fight back!”
If anything, the Strzok firing will be cited as definitive proof – by Trump and his supporters – that the President was right all along about, well, everything as it relates to Mueller and Russia. That the investigation should never have been started in the first place and that Strzok’s anti-Trump views corroded the entire team – which, in Trump’s mind, is comprised solely of “angry Democrats” anyway. (Note that Strzok was removed from the Mueller probe in the summer of 2017 after Mueller got word of the existence of the texts; and also that Mueller is a Republican who was appointed as special counsel by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.)
This will provide fuel for the argument that not only should the Mueller probe be ended today but that the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her time as secretary of state – for which no charges were ultimately brought – should be reopened. “Just fired Agent Strzok, formerly of the FBI, was in charge of the Crooked Hillary Clinton sham investigation,” tweeted Trump. “It was a total fraud on the American public and should be properly redone!”
Now turn to the Mueller end of things. The former FBI director has repeatedly refused to engage Trump even as the President has become more and more aggressive in his taunts against the special counsel. Mueller’s defenders will note, rightly, that Strzok was removed from the special counsel probe a year ago – as soon as Mueller found out about the text exchanges between Strzok and Page. And Justice Department watchers could tell you that since the IG report’s release, Strzok has been effectively benched – working in human resources, according to The Washington Post, which first broke the news of Strzok’s firing.
Yes, they will note, Strzok is a bad actor and someone who should have known far better than to do what he did over text during the 2016 campaign. But he was removed from the Mueller investigation. He hasn’t been an active FBI agent for months. One bad apple doesn’t spoil the bunch – and all that.
The most predictable thing of all is how the public will react to the Strzok firing and the arguments made in its wake. Trump backers will side with the President’s assertion that, now more than ever, whatever Mueller wins up finding is invalidated by Strzok. Trump detractors will see Strzok as someone who, yes, sent texts he shouldn’t have, but at the end of the day did nothing to actually impede Trump’s chances of being elected President. Strzok was a big talker in trying to impress a woman, an age-old story but not something that takes away the various criminal pleas already in the books as a result of the Mueller probe.
The truth is that Strzok was already a political football before the news of his firing broke on Monday. He was the perfect villain for Trump allies who saw in him all of the nefarious biases they believe infect the entrenched government bureaucracy. He remains that villain today – and that would be the case even if he remained at the FBI for another decade. For Mueller supporters, Strzok is one agent gone rogue – nothing more and nothing less. His firing is a matter for the FBI to handle and doesn’t impede or in any way impact the Mueller investigation into interference and the possibility of collusion and/or obstruction.
The right way to understand the Strzok firing is – like so much in our current political culture – as sound and fury, signifying not all that much in the long run.