The recently released congressional testimonies of two former Federal Bureau of Investigation officials provide intriguing new insights into two of the FBI’s most high-profile cases: the probe of Hillary Clinton’s use of an unauthorized email server while serving as Secretary of State and the investigation sparked by vague allegations of cooperation between President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign team and Russian officials.
Unique in American history, the 2016 presidential campaign involved two candidates who were both principal figures in FBI investigations. To date, the exact circumstances and facts pertinent to the execution of these investigations still are being unraveled. Much of what has been reported to the American public is inaccurate or incomplete. Most people have followed the unfolding of events by absorbing only what their chosen media outlets have reported, but few published articles or television reports paint an accurate picture of how everything played out – and why.
The testimony of Lisa Page, given to the House Judiciary Committee in July 2018, provides an enormous amount of perspective to how and why the FBI conducted these two investigations. It not only dispels some common myths and assumptions but also leaves one or two big questions unanswered. More than anything else, though, Page’s testimony – while not totally exonerating the Bureau – shows that if there was any deliberate effort to shield Clinton from legal jeopardy over her mishandling of classified information, it was driven by the Department of Justice.
Strzok and Page Roles Inflated?
Former FBI counsel Page and her colleague and one-time paramour Peter Strzok both have been seen as central figures in these two investigations. Due to the highly partisan and inflammatory nature of many text messages exchanged between the two, it has been widely speculated that Strzok and Page may have played roles in ensuring that Clinton was never charged with a crime and that Trump was targeted for alleged crimes for which there was no proof.
For his part, Strzok was certainly in a position to influence decisions made by the FBI team that investigated the Clinton email scandal and also the team that investigated alleged Russian collusion. As Page’s testimony clarifies, however, the FBI could not operate independently of the Justice Department; nothing the Bureau did, concerning either investigation, was done without DOJ oversight and approval. So, despite his senior position and principal role in both investigations, Strzok was not able to simply steer either operation in the direction he desired, driven by some personal animus toward Trump.
Page had no decisionmaking authority over either investigation. In fact, she took no direct role in the execution of the Clinton probe or in the counterintelligence investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 general election. During the Clinton email investigation – codenamed Midyear Exam, or MYE – Page held a semi-official role as personal counsel to then-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. She was, for want of more accurate terms, McCabe’s adviser or confidante. She ensured that the deputy director was up to date on where Bureau personnel were in the investigation and, as she describes it, she was a “sounding board” for McCabe.
Once the Russia investigation was opened, Page maintained that same role until she was assigned to Robert Mueller’s team, where her primary purpose was to facilitate the transition of the Russia probe from an FBI operation to a special counsel investigation.
So, in reality, neither Page nor Strzok could allow a personal dislike of Trump to influence the course of the Russia investigation. Strzok had the ability to influence the Clinton investigation, though final decisions about potential indictments were not within his purview.
Holes in the Page Testimony
Although Page was clear and firm in her assertion, throughout her two days of testimony, that FBI employees do not allow their personal political opinions to influence their work, she fell short of producing a convincing defense of one particular text message exchange between her and Strzok. In August 2016, Page texted this question to Strzok: “[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!” Strzok responded: “No. No he won’t. We’ll stop it.”
The former Bureau attorney claimed that she interpreted Strzok’s response to her question as an attempt to comfort her, to calm her fears about the possibility of Trump winning the election. Given the backdrop of events, that is a weak and wholly inadequate explanation. This is a high-ranking FBI official making a very clear statement of intent to prevent a presidential candidate from winning a general election.
There is no knowing, for certain, how Strzok – at that moment – imagined he would pull off such a feat, but the statement itself – “No. No he won’t. We’ll stop it.” – is not open to interpretation. Perhaps, in that instant, he was merely trying to impress his girlfriend and had no firm plan to stop Trump becoming president, but the intent is there, as clear as day. The “we” (“we’ll”) could have referred to himself and Page, as the recipient of the text, or the FBI in general, or the DOJ as a whole. There is simply no other reasonable way to interpret who “we” is.
Addressing the suspicion that the FBI, or at least an element within the FBI, was working to affect the 2016 election by ensuring that Clinton would be the eventual winner, Page makes an argument that fails to stand up to scrutiny. In her testimony, she proposes that the Bureau did not, in fact, take any action that sabotaged Trump’s campaign, even though it conceivably could have done so. She points to the fact that the Bureau kept a tight lid on the Trump-Russia collusion investigation and that, had the plan been to sink Trump’s campaign, the FBI could have ensured that knowledge of the investigation had gotten out to the public.
It seems, on its face, a sound argument. News that the FBI was investigating a presidential candidate for possible ties to America’s greatest political adversary could have been a fatal blow to that candidate’s prospects. Surely, then, these Bureau officials plotting against Trump could have leaked news of the investigation to the media and practically guaranteed a Clinton victory.
That premise is deeply flawed, though. Any knowledge that the FBI – bearing in mind that Barack Obama was still president at the time – was investigating the Republican presidential candidate would have immediately ignited a firestorm of outrage and suspicion. The media would have pounced, seeking details of what Trump or his associates had done to draw the FBI’s attention. Republicans in Congress would have demanded answers.
Called upon to justify this action, the Bureau would have had to admit, at that point, it had no evidence of anything nefarious and that the entire investigation was based upon a collection of uncorroborated reports that have come to be known collectively as the Steele dossier. Once it was revealed that this dossier was compiled by a former British spy who hated Trump and that it was financed by the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign, the likely backlash would have been so great that Trump’s margin of victory probably would have been far greater than it eventually was.
DOJ Protecting Clinton?
The biggest takeaway from Page’s testimony is the revelation that the DOJ made the decision that Clinton would not be charged. When then-FBI Director James Comey delivered his infamous “exoneration statement” – seemingly assuming the authority to make such a decision, which he did not have – he was, essentially, covering for the Justice Department, which had already made it clear that charges would not be brought.
In a draft of that letter, Comey had used the term “gross negligence” to describe Clinton’s handling of emails, but the term has a specific legal definition. The Justice Department had declined to charge Clinton under that particular statute, describing it as “unconstitutionally vague,” according to Page. She also said the DOJ had argued that the statute was untested law because it had been used only once in some 99 years.
It still appears entirely likely that the DOJ simply had no intention of bringing any charges against Clinton because, well, it was part of a Democratic executive branch and not about to indict a Democratic presidential candidate. It is also quite possible that a number of DOJ officials – from Attorney General Loretta Lynch on down the line – would never have charged a future president unless they had an airtight case that would lead to a conviction. The consequences of failing to get a conviction were simply too great.
Thus, the term “gross negligence” was removed from the Comey letter, to spare the embarrassment and disbelief that would have arisen from accusing Clinton of a chargeable offense and then not charging her.
While the testimony of Page paints the FBI in a far less unfavorable light than the one previously cast by numerous suspicions over the handling of these two investigations, it still leaves some very important questions: Did Strzok intend, at some point, to engineer Trump’s downfall? Why was Clinton essentially presumed innocent despite the seemingly reckless disregard for security, the thousands of deleted emails, and the many other breaches of important protocols? Why did the FBI go to great lengths to investigate the Trump campaign based upon a collection of salacious allegations and reports that its own people had failed to corroborate?
If, as Page suggests, the Russia investigation was opened because of some vague idea that someone in Trump’s campaign may have been working for or with the Russians, why was the candidate himself not warned about that possibility?
The Page testimony still is partially redacted, and Page herself could still have been recounting a version of events that does not reflect the entire truth. It is also true that she was accompanied to the congressional hearing by FBI lawyers who did not allow her to answer certain questions. The puzzle is not complete. If Page is to be believed, there was no FBI conspiracy to take down Trump but her testimony is not the whole story and in parts it was weak.
At the very least, it seems quite evident that there was a conspiracy within the Department of Justice to ensure that Clinton – despite suspicious and incriminating behavior on her part and on the part of her associates – would be insulated from any legal difficulties. Just as the Trump-Russia collusion story is destined to linger into 2020, so will the Clinton email scandal. The outcome of either affair – or of both – may yet have a decisive impact on the next race for the White House.