The timing was remarkable. Just after Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s plea deal with former National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn, The Wall Street Journal reported that Peter Strzok, a top FBI agent assigned to Mueller’s team, had been reassigned over the summer after the discovery of text messages he wrote criticizing then-candidate Donald Trump.
“Mr. Strzok, who is considered one of the FBI’s most experienced counterintelligence agents, was reassigned to a supervisory job in the bureau’s human resources division after Mr. Mueller learned about the inquiry into the text messages,” the Journal reported.
For Trump, the news was a boon—a small piece of information he would brandish before his base as evidence that Mueller’s investigation was a witchhunt, as he’d said all along. Conversely, it complicated Mueller’s already politically precarious task. But much about Strzok’s story remains unknown, and it’s hard to draw useful conclusions about Mueller’s probe. Based on what is known, the more strident reactions—calling for the dissolution of the special counsel’s team—are completely unwarranted, and in the broader scope, they may weaken the justice system.
During the 2016 election, the Journal reported, Strzok exchanged texts in which he made fun of Trump, then a Republican presidential candidate, with Lisa Page, a fellow FBI employee with whom he was romantically involved. (She also briefly worked on the Mueller team, leaving this summer.) Stzrok was also involved in the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.
The immediate reaction among Trump and his defenders was noisy. The president tweeted the story, adding that the FBI’s “reputation is in Tatters.” (That drew a rebuttal from Director Chris Wray, whom Trump appointed in June.) Tom Fitton, president of the conservative group Judicial Watch, called for Mueller’s probe to be shut down entirely. On Sean Hannity’s show, Fox News legal analyst Gregg Jarrett said Mueller was using the FBI as a political tool “just like the old KGB” (an either cleverly or poorly chosen analogy); Hannity replied, “This is not hyperbole.”
This is, in fact, hyperbole. Mueller’s spokesman says—and there is no available evidence to contradict him—that the special counsel reassigned Strzok as soon as he became aware of the text messages, even without any evidence that Strzok’s work had been tainted. (As far as accountability goes, this compares favorably to other agencies of the Trump administration; President Trump allowed Flynn to remain at his post for more than two weeks after the White House learned he had lied to FBI agents.) Nor is Strzok’s involvement in either the Clinton investigation or Mueller team strange on its face—he was a highly experienced counterintelligence agent.
The people who are most loudly denouncing Strzok are those who have felt the special counsel’s probe was misbegotten from the start. They appear less to be drawing a conclusion from this new piece of information than fitting it into their preexisting convictions, and there’s almost certainly nothing Mueller could do to convince them he is acting properly anyway. Partisan attempts to discredit a special prosecutor are neither new nor limited to conservatives—just ask Ken Starr, whom Democrats assailed from the very start as unfit to investigate Bill Clinton. (Starr was a Republican investigating a Democrat, whereas Mueller is a Republican who was first appointed to lead the FBI by President George W. Bush. But we digress.)
It may be that Strzok did something wrong, and if so, he should and will be disciplined. So far, however, there is no proof he did—not during the Clinton investigation and not during the special-counsel probe. The inquiry into his texts is still underway, and unless and until dispositive evidence otherwise emerges, the sensible course is to allow it to proceed, just as it makes sense to allow Mueller to do his work. Wray said during testimony to the House Judiciary Committee Thursday that although he had been reassigned, Strzok had not been punished.
In the absence of concrete evidence of wrongdoing, there are second-hand descriptions of text messages that Strzok sent in his private life, on which basis come the calls for his dismissal and the end of an already-fruitful special-counsel probe whose work Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein endorsed this week. The implications of that stand are potentially far-reaching.
There’s no surprise that any given FBI agent has political views. In fact, the more surprising thing would be if Strzok proves to have favored Clinton. So far, the point of consensus is that his texts were critical of Trump, but so were many conservatives. Nationwide, law enforcement tends to lean right, and during the campaign, Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani acknowledged receiving secrets from FBI insiders.
While the Justice Department has a clear code of ethics, it does not preclude employees from holding political views or expressing them to acquaintances in their private lives. The alternative is that everyone who works in law enforcement must be without political convictions, which is obviously unrealistic, as former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy writes.
“People who work in law enforcement tend to be engaged citizens, well-informed about current events. Many of them are passionate in their political conviction,” he argues. “But they get checked at the courthouse door, even in political-corruption cases. Law enforcement is a straightforward exercise: Figure out what the facts and law are, then apply the latter to the former.”
McCarthy is no squish. In fact, he’s speaking in part about himself—a guy prone to outrageous statements, like claiming that the American left and Barack Obama were in league with Islamists to destroy capitalism. But he describes investigating Bill Clinton’s pardons as he left office. McCarthy hated—hates—the Clintons. But he ended up concluding there had been no law-breaking. “It didn’t matter how I felt about Bill and Hillary personally or politically—which was no secret to my law-enforcement friends and colleagues,” he writes. “This was a strict legal matter, and my sworn duty, like that of every other Justice Department prosecutor, was to enforce the law without fear or favor.”
Of course, individuals may let their political views color their actions, intentionally or not, which is why the justice system is set up with checks and balances—a prosecutor can’t convict without a judge and jury, and so on. But in most of the justice system, there’s not even a pretense of political impartiality. Across the country, many judges and prosecutors are elected, some of them on partisan tickets. It is only in the jury-selection process that the system seeks to eliminate people who may have already formed strong opinions on a topic. While there are understandable reasons for that practice, it also sometimes produces cringeworthy results, as when a juror in Senator Bob Menendez’s corruption trial sent a note to the judge asking what a senator is. This may be a necessity in juries, but weeding out the most knowledgeable candidates is self-evidently no way to run a justice system. While systemic problems in the justice system, such as vast racial inequities, require fixing, individual political views cannot and will not be eliminated.
The FBI has pretended to impartiality before. The bureau’s founder and longtime director, J. Edgar Hoover, promised a force that was immune to political considerations. That turned out not to be quite right: Hoover’s FBI targeted leftists and civil-rights leaders, blackmailed politicians, and tried to coerce Martin Luther King into killing himself.
If the FBI is a strange place for the right to see pernicious leftist influence, the thrust of the current attack—on expertise in the name of political correctness—closely mirrors the shape of attacks on academia and the press, where conservatives have lodged similar demands that members be entirely free of political views they find objectionable.
The answer in the case of the FBI, as on campus and in the media, is not an unrealistic expectation that people be blank slates, but protocols and codes of conduct designed to make sure that, whatever their personal beliefs, their work is being done fairly and without favor—and that there are procedures for disciplining them if they fall short of that. In the case of Strzok, that system seems to be working fine.