FBI debated in 2016 how aggressively to probe Trump campaign

Peter Strzok, FBI agent publicly testifies on Capitol Hill about anti-Trump texts, Photo Date: 7/12/2018 / Photo: MSNBC / (MGN)
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WASHINGTON (AP) — During the early days of the Russia investigation, FBI officials debated whether Donald Trump's chance of winning should factor into how aggressively they investigated potential coordination between his campaign and the Kremlin, two FBI officials told Congress last year, according to newly released transcripts of their interviews.

Peter Strzok, the former FBI agent who helped lead the investigation, told lawmakers in a closed-door interview that the FBI had received information from an "extremely sensitive source" alleging collusion between Russia and members of the Trump campaign. FBI officials, including then-Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, debated internally how vigorously to follow up on that information given that Democrat Hillary Clinton was seen at the time as likely to defeat Trump, and an aggressive investigation had the potential of endangering the source.

Strzok said he disagreed that a candidate's electability should be part of the equation.

"If there are members of the Trump campaign who are actively illegally colluding with the government of Russia, that's something the American people need to know, that's something candidate Trump potentially needs to know. And equally, if they aren't guilty of anything, that's also important," Strzok said. "So my statement there is: We can't consider, we can't take into consideration, the likelihood or unlikelihood of anybody's electoral process. We need to go, based on the gravity of this allegation, go investigate it and get to the bottom of it."

The comments were made during a closed-door interview in June 2018 with the House Judiciary Committee. The top Republican on that panel, Rep. Doug Collins, released a transcript of the interview on Thursday as part of an ongoing effort to paint the early days of the Russia investigation as tainted by law enforcement bias. In the past week, Collins has released transcripts of similar interviews with Justice Department official Bruce Ohr and ex-FBI lawyer Lisa Page, with whom Strzok exchanged anti-Trump text messages during the 2016 election and investigations into his campaign.

Those text messages have made Strzok and Page particular targets of outrage from Republicans and from Trump. Strzok was removed from special counsel Robert Mueller's investigative team in August 2017 following the discovery of the texts and was later fired from the FBI. Page has since left the bureau.

In a statement Thursday, Strzok attorney Aitan Goelman said his client welcomed the release of the transcript.

"It is further evidence that, contrary to the impression that the President's allies in Congress tried to create with their selective and often inaccurate leaks, Pete at all times discharged his duties honorably, patriotically, and without regard to his personal political opinions," Goelman said.

In the transcript, Strzok said the debate over how aggressively to investigate the campaign explained the backstory of a cryptic Aug. 15, 2016, text message he sent Page that has long attracted Republican attention.

In it, he wrote: "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 that risk. It's like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you're 40." The name "Andy" is a reference to McCabe, then the No. 2 official at the FBI.

Strzok insisted that he did not have an "insurance policy" to keep Trump from getting elected and noted how neither he nor anyone else at the FBI leaked details of the Trump campaign investigation even though such a disclosure would have been harmful to his election efforts. He said "there was no conspiracy" at the FBI to prevent Trump from becoming president, and that he and Page did not secretly scheme to block his path.

Page provided a similar explanation during her own closed-door interview, saying how she had urged caution in the investigation because if Trump didn't win, there was less of a national security concern.

"And he is saying, no, we have to, you know, do what we have to do in order to get to the bottom of this because it is like an insurance policy. There is no actual insurance policy. He is making an analogy," Page said. "It is like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you're 40."

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Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.



 
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