Peter Strzok’s ‘False Memory’ About the Origins of Crossfire Hurricane

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WASHINGTON, DC – JULY 12, 2018: Deputy Assistant FBI Director Peter Strzok testifies before a joint committee hearing of the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In this week’s news, we are learning that Jordan Fuchs, the Georgia Deputy Secretary of State who was the Washington Post’s source for its blockbuster story on Trump’s call to the Georgia election investigator, gave false information about one of the calls, as discussed by Arthur Bloom.

This seems like an appropriate segue to re-examine an equally grotesque and virtually undiscussed fabrication by notorious FBI official Peter Strzok, who, in a CBS interview and in his recent memoir Compromised, fabricated the damning assertion that Australian diplomat Alexander Downer’s submission of information to the U.S. embassy in London had been “triggered” by Trump’s “Russia, are you listening” quip, and that, accordingly, Trump “with his own words had brought [the Crossfire Hurricane] investigation on himself.”

But it was totally untrue. Although the key documents on Downer’s interviews, first with Deputy Chief of Mission Elizabeth Dibble and subsequently with Strzok and SSA Joe Pientka, remain concealed, it was possible (by sheer chance) to refute Strzok’s fabrication using the very limited open-source chronological information. Strzok quickly recognized his dilemma, promptly gave a new narrative that was, at least, not chronologically impossible, and everyone moved on as though nothing had happened. Neither CBS nor his publisher even bothered issuing a retraction or correction.

But the spectacle of Strzok’s “false memory” relating to one of the most critical Russiagate incidents—an incident at the very origin of Crossfire Hurricane—deserves careful consideration and re-examination.

The Chronology

Downer’s junior associate Erika Thompson, the political counsellor at the Australian embassy in London, had drinks with George Papadopoulos on May 6. (Christian Cantor of the Israeli embassy in London may also have been present.) On May 10, Downer and Thompson had a follow-up meeting with Papadopoulos. It is very unclear whether the now-canonical account of Papadopoulos’s story arose from the May 10 meeting at which Downer was present or from the May 6 meeting, on which Downer’s information was second-hand. The Mueller Report was singularly evasive on this seemingly simple point.

Downer sent a report on his meeting with Papadopoulos back to the Australian Foreign Ministry on May 11 and thought nothing more about the incident for a couple of months. (The existence of Downer’s report has been confirmed, but it remains totally redacted.)

On July 26, Downer—suddenly, urgently and outside of diplomatic protocol—went personally to the U.S. embassy in London and sought out the most senior official, Elizabeth Dibble, the Deputy Chief of Mission (as the Ambassador was not in the country at the time). 

Dibble promptly called in and briefed the FBI Legat (Brian Boetig) and most senior CIA official in London (Gina Haspel). Boetig promptly wrote up an FBI “Electronic Communication,” which quickly made its way to FBI Headquarters. On Friday, July 29, Deputy Director Andrew McCabe directed the Assistant Director, Counterintelligence (Bill Priestap) to open the counterintelligence investigation now known to us as Crossfire Hurricane. Priestap passed the direction to open the case on to his subordinate, Peter Strzok (then Section Chief, CD4) and additionally instructed him to proceed immediately to London to interview Downer.

Over the weekend, Strzok officially opened the Crossfire Hurricane investigation, filing the authorizing Electronic Communication memorandum on Sunday, July 31. The form, one of the few available documents on the affair, shows that it was both prepared by Strzok and approved by Strzok—not exactly the check and balance that one would have anticipated. Strzok contacted the FBI Assistant Legat in London (which appears to be Paul Woodbery) and asked him to arrange an interview with the Australian diplomats. 

On Monday, August 1, Strzok was informed by the London office that the Australians had agreed to an interview. That evening, Strzok and Pientka left for London on the overnight flight, arriving in London in the early morning of August 2. It took some additional time for terms of the interview to be ironed out, but by about 2 p.m. London time (10 a.m. Eastern), the interview was a go.  The interview seems to have gone on for about 2-3 hours. Strzok and Pientka were back in Washington on August 3. Crossfire Hurricane was already in full flight.

Strzok’s Story about Downer

All documents on the Downer interview were promptly placed under extreme classification and remain concealed to this day. Nor is there any relevant information in the available Strzok-Page texts, either because Strzok (uncharacteristically) didn’t gossip with Page about the meeting or, more likely, because any such texts have been withheld or expunged.

Strzok’s September 6, 2020, interview with CBS (and related brief comments in Compromised) gave the very first information on the critical Downer interview, including the very first official explanation of why Downer decided to report the Papadopoulos conversation to the U.S. embassy when he did—in Strzok’s words, what “triggered him.”

Exact words are important, so here are Strzok’s exact words in the CBS interview (transcription and emphasis mine):

Narrator: Papadopoulos was in London having drinks with an Australian diplomat. 

Strzok: Papadopoulos told them that somebody on the Trump campaign had received an offer that said the Russians have material that would be damaging to Hillary Clinton and to Obama and they offered to coordinate the release of that information in a way that would help the Trump campaign.

Narrator: The Australians didn’t make much of it until Trump made this appeal about Hillary Clinton’s emails: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” Those Australian diplomats heard that and contacted the FBI.

Strzok:When they saw that speech by Trump, that triggered their memory of the conversation they had with Papadopoulos.

The CBS interviewer observed the implication that Trump had been hoisted on his own petard, as it was his own inflammatory statements that had originated the entire Crossfire Hurricane investigation, not malicious or mistaken conduct by others after all. Strzok agreed:

Interviewer: So, Donald Trump with his own words brought this investigation down on himself. 

Strzok: According to what theforeign government told us, yes.

In Compromised, Strzok similarly stated that Downer delivered his original information to the U.S. embassy “shortly after Trump’s Florida press conference”:

When we received the report about Papadopoulos’s revelations to the Friendly Foreign Government’s personnel—intelligence that they sent from their embassy to ours shortly after Trump’s Florida press conference…

In Downer’s recounting, Trump’s words jarred his memory of a series of conversations months earlier…

A vivid narrative from one of the most important figures in the opening of Crossfire Hurricane.

The Contradiction

Here’s the problem.

Trump’s “Russia, are you listening” quip was made at a July 27, 2016, press conference, while Downer’s tip was given to the U.S. embassy on July 26, one day earlier. (The July 26 date is provided in both the Mueller Report, published in April 2019, and the Horowitz Report, published in December 2019.) 

It was chronologically impossible for Trump’s quip to have actually triggered Downer’s tip.  

Worse, this implies that Strzok’s story about Downer telling him that he had been triggered by Trump’s speech was also untrue—either a false memory or fabrication—each as insalubrious as the other. 

Nobody in U.S. major media or its “fact checkers” noticed Strzok’s false information.

It was, however, quickly noticed by Hans Mahncke, a knowledgeable Twitter commentator on Russiagate, who issued the following challenge to Strzok on Twitter at 5:58 p.m. on Sept 6, 2020:

Mahncke’s observation was picked up by Dan Bongino, who two days later (September 8, 2020) colorfully brought it to the attention of his large audience (citing Mahncke). In framing his comment as a choice between Strzok lying or Downer lying, Mahncke was allowing to the remote possibility that Australian ambassador Downer had lied to Strzok about what had triggered him. Because Strzok’s interview with Downer took place after Trump’s quip, Downer would have had knowledge of the quip when he met Strzok, even though he didn’t have knowledge of the quip when he provided the tip. So it is not chronologically impossible that Downer lied, only implausible. But it remains a remote possibility that Strzok himself never suggested, and which became moot when Strzok (as discussed below) walked back part of his false story.

Later on September 6 (9:11 p.m.), Jerry Dunleavy of the Washington Examiner published a short article (together with accompanying announcement on Twitter) that pointed out the impossibility of Strzok’s chronology:

While Dunleavy alertly noticed the chronological issue, unlike Mahncke, he didn’t connect the impossible chronology to Strzok’s false story about what Downer had told him. As discussed in the next section, Strzok capitalized on this oversight to construct a “limited hangout”—to borrow an apt phrase from Nixonian days.

Strzok’s September 11 Lawfare Interview

Three days later (September 11), Strzok did a lengthy interview on Benjamin Wittes’ Lawfare podcast as part of his continued promotion of his memoir.

In an open online question period following the interview, Wittes put the following question from Dunleavy to Strzok:

Wittes: Jerry Dunleavy of Washington Examiner writes: “Can Mr. Strzok clear up what seems to be a contradiction in his timeline of how the Crossfire Hurricane investigation began. He writes that the Australians were prompted to contact the U.S. about a May 2016 conversation with George Papadopoulos following Trump’s ‘Russia, are you listening’ comment in July 2016. But Mueller and Horowitz say that the U.S. was contacted by the Friendly Foreign Government on July 26. Trump’s comments were not until the next day, July 27, 2016.” Any help for Mr. Dunleavy?

Strzok appears to have been already aware of the chronological contradiction of his previous narrative, as he was ready with a smooth answer that purported to sanitize his prior false story, an answer that was given without any request for clarifying details and without the slightest stumble. Strzok crisply acknowledged the error, which, needless to say, he blamed on others: 

Strzok: Absolutely. I got that wrong. I was writing my book without the benefit of my notes. The FBI had those. And the IG report had not been issued. 

In his new version, Strzok said it was the Wikileaks dump of DNC emails on July 22 that “prompted their memory of the conversation” (not the Trump quip):

What happened was is that there had been a big dump through Wikileaks absolutely, as the IG report describes it. They saw that. That prompted their memory of the conversation. And then they began the process of contacting us overseas and giving us that information to us. 

Watch the pea here. Strzok didn’t say that Downer told him that the Wikileaks dump prompted his visit to the U.S. embassy. If Downer had done so, then Strzok’s story to CBS and in his book was even worse than we thought, as not only did he tell a false story about the prompt, but, in doing so, he concealed the actual story. Taken literally, Strzok’s assertion about what prompted Downer could be nothing more than his assessment—or “analytic conclusion,” to borrow a phrase from Igor Danchenko, EC—or, more accurately, speculation.  It defies logic that Strzok and Pientka wouldn’t have asked Downer what prompted his visit to the Embassy, but we don’t know whether they did. 

Strzok’s new narrative still tried to blame Trump for instigating the Crossfire Hurricane investigation:

My recollection is, and the reason why I mention that conversation about Trump’s speech about Russia, are you listening, when we finally in the Counterintelligence Division got that lead from the FFG, it was at the same time that Trump was making those comments. Which was really concerning. Because they dovetailed exactly with Trump asking for Russian assistance, Trump asking for the Russians to hack in and find her emails, whatever their technique, and that came in at the same time.

This aspect of the chronology is realistic. DCM Dibble briefed FBI Legat Boetig and CIA Head of Station (Haspel) on July 27. On July 28, FBI Legat Boetig sent his Electronic Communication to a contact at the Philadelphia Field Office, who forwarded it the same day to Charles McGonigal, Section Chief of the Cyber Counterintelligence Coordination Section at FBI headquarters. Strzok appears to have learned of the Australian information in the evening of July 28—the day after Trump’s quip.

In this new version, it was the FBI Counterintelligence Division itself which was “triggered” by Trump’s quip (not the Australian ambassador). Strzok didn’t explain or even acknowledge his false memory about Downer telling Strzok about the Trump quip. Nor, needless to say, was he challenged by Trump-deranged Wittes on his prior fabrication.

This may also point to an explanation of the apparent failure of supposedly ace counterintelligence officials Strzok and Pientka to even ask Downer about what “triggered” his report (if the surmise about such neglect is borne out). Because the FBI officials had been “triggered” by Trump’s “Russia, are you listening” speech, perhaps they assumed that Downer had been as well—not turning their minds to the chronological impossibility until confronted by Twitter critics.

Returning to Strzok’s narrative, Strzok then purported to minimize his false memory as “a little error,” casting shade on critics of his story:

So, there was a little error. I know that some people are scrubbing timelines for little details and making headlines around them. But that was an honest mistake based on a lack of specific recollection that came after I submitted my book to pre-pub review, all this information came out afterwards.

Wittes accepted Strzok’s self-serving and implausible answer without comment or question and moved on. 

As to Strzok’s supposed “little error” and/or “honest mistake,” it seems easy enough for someone (without access to notes) to be incorrect on the relative order of two events that occurred one day apart four years ago. However, Strzok himself, like other Mueller investigators, was unforgiving of seemingly similar or even lesser missteps by Trump-orbit witnesses. (Or, in the case of Mueller investigators, as alleged by, for example, K.T. McFarland and Rick Gates, seemingly seeking to entrap witnesses, sometimes even denying them access to refreshing documents.)

Strzok also attempted to blame his supposed “little error” on the fact that “the IG report had not been issued” when he was writing the book and when he submitted the manuscript for clearance. But Strzok’s real issue wasn’t that these reports weren’t available in real time, but that he failed to realize that his tall tale about Downer was contradicted by the July 26 date disclosed in the Horowitz Report published in December 2019, long before publication of his memoir in September 2020. (Actually, it’s even worse: The July 26 date was publicly disclosed eight months before the Horowitz Report, in the April 2019 Mueller Report.)

It seems exceptionally hypocritical for Strzok (or any participant in the Mueller investigation) to exonerate their own false statements as merely a “little error” or “honest mistake” due to lack of access to notes and documents, given their prior record of putting Mueller victims on the rack for incorrect statements or recollections about earlier events without showing them the emails to comment on (as they did, for example, in the examination of Hillary Clinton). Richard Gates, Alex van der Zwaan, Michael Flynn, and George Papadopoulos were all charged and convicted for false statements about previous events that were not in themselves criminal or even harmful. Strzok’s expectation that the Lawfare audience should accept his false memory as a “little error” and “honest mistake” seems audacious given his gloating in Compromised. 

Strzok’s “False Memory” and its Implications

Out of all the issues arising from Strzok’s CBS and Lawfare interviews, the most important was left unexamined by Wittes: Strzok’s false memory of Downer supposedly telling him about the triggering event—a story that is not only central to Crossfire Hurricane, but which was also prominently used in the CBS interview to discredit Trump.

Note that it was completely fortuitous that there was enough open-source information to contradict Strzok’s false story. If the Mueller and Horowitz reports had merely said “late July,” instead of “July 26” (as would have been entirely possible), there would be no way to contradict Strzok’s false information. Or, if Downer had delayed his visit to the embassy by a day or two (also entirely possible), it would have similarly been impossible to confront Strzok’s disinformation. 

Strzok’s false memory on such an essential incident obviously calls into question his recollection and characterization of other Russiagate incidents. In Compromised, Strzok also commented on the “sanctions” issue in the January 24, 2017, Michael Flynn interview (also by Strzok and Pientka). I plan to discuss this in a separate article, as, once again, Strzok’s narrative in Compromised appears to be another case of “false memory.” 

Secondly, there’s no reason to uncritically accept Strzok’s second version of what supposedly triggered Downer’s information on July 26. Indeed, the opposite is the case. Strzok’s changing story makes it all the more important to re-examine the events immediately prior to Downer’s visit to the U.S. embassy. These turn out to be considerably more textured and interesting than Strzok’s limited hangout. I intend to discuss these events in another follow-up article as well.

The corollary of discovering Strzok’s lie is that we don’t presently know two of the most fundamental questions about the opening of Crossfire Hurricane: (1) what triggered Downer to report the Papadopoulos conversation to the U.S. embassy; and (2) what Downer actually told Strzok on August 1, 2016, about what triggered him to go to the U.S. embassy.

Finally, Strzok’s illustrated lack of credibility raises a fundamental question on Crossfire Hurricane itself. Strzok’s opening memorandum was based on fourth- (perhaps fifth-)hand information. With that many handoffs in a sort of Pass The Telephone game by multiple officials, there’s an obvious, serious risk of distortion or misunderstanding along the way. In particular, in Downer’s earliest public interview about Crossfire Hurricane, neither the words “Russian offer” nor any cognate concept occur.

Stephen McIntyre is founder and editor of Climate Audit.

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