WASHINGTON — The former top FBI official assigned to special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election was taken off that job this summer after his bosses discovered he and another member of Mueller’s team had exchanged politically charged texts disparaging President Donald Trump and supporting Hillary Clinton, according to multiple people familiar with the matter.
Peter Strzok, as deputy head of counterintelligence at the FBI, was a key player in the investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server to do government work as secretary of state, as well as the probe into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia in the 2016 election.
During the Clinton investigation, Strzok was involved in a romantic relationship with FBI lawyer Lisa Page, who worked for Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, according to the people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The extramarital affair was problematic, these people said, but of greater concern among senior law enforcement officials were text messages the two exchanged during the Clinton investigation and campaign season in which they expressed anti-Trump sentiments and other comments that appeared to favor Clinton.
The people discussing the matter did not further describe the political messages between Strzok and Page, except to say the two would sometimes react to campaign news of the moment.
The Justice Department inspector general’s office said in a statement Saturday that its investigators are “reviewing allegations involving communications between certain individuals, and will report its findings regarding those allegations promptly upon completion of the review of them.’’
A spokesman for Mueller’s office said Strzok was removed “immediately upon learning of the allegations’’ and added that Page left the Mueller team two weeks before it became aware of the allegations.
The FBI declined to comment.
The Post repeatedly sought comment from Strzok and Page but got no response.
Defenders of Page and Strzok insisted that the issue is “overblown’’ and that there was no misconduct between the two.
A friend of Page’s said there was no professional misconduct at issue in the matter, and she said Page left the Mueller team in July before any of the issues came to light.
Page also no longer works much with McCabe, these people said.
When the issue arose, Strzok was taken off the Mueller team in late July, and he was given a job in the human resources division of the FBI - widely viewed internally as a demotion, according to people familiar with the matter.
A former senior Trump administration official said Strzok was evenhanded in all his dealings with the Trump White House. “I had the occasion to work closely with Special Agent Peter Strzok and never experienced even a hint of political bias. He was one of the most competent [counterintelligence] agents, and a role model,” the official said. “The country is tearing itself apart, and men like Pete Strzok are victims. The enemy is better off with him sidelined,” the former official added, referring to foreign adversaries.
At the time of the two departures from Mueller’s group, no one publicly linked them. For months, officials have refused to explain why Strzok was reassigned, but people familiar with the matter said it was ultimately Mueller’s decision.
Among federal law enforcement officials, there is great concern that exposure of the texts they exchanged may be used by the president and his defenders to attack the credibility of the Mueller probe and the FBI more broadly, according to the people familiar with the matter.
Defenders of Strzok and Page inside the FBI said that because there was no direct supervisory role between Page and Strzok in the workplace, there wasn’t anything professionally wrong about having an affair, but they added that they understood why Mueller would not want anyone engaged in such conduct on his team. For one thing, if a foreign intelligence agency learned of such an affair, they could try to use it as a means of blackmail, although there’s no evidence anyone outside the FBI was aware of the relationship.
The president’s most vociferous defenders in Congress have called for a special counsel to investigate how the FBI handled the Clinton probe and other Clinton-connected matters. Word of the texts could give new fuel to those demands.
The Clinton investigation formally ended in July 2016, when FBI Director James Comey announced he would recommend Clinton face no charges for her use of a private email server as secretary of state. But the issue was resurrected in late October, when Comey informed congressional leaders that the FBI had discovered new Clinton emails on a laptop belonging to former congressman Anthony Weiner, then the subject of a separate FBI investigation. Days later, Comey announced that the emails on the laptop did not change the FBI’s view of the case.
Clinton and her supporters say Comey’s moves in October cost her the 2016 election, and Trump and his Republican allies have used it to justify Comey’s firing - the event that ultimately led to Mueller’s appointment as special counsel.
A lawyer for Comey said the former FBI director would not comment on the situation concerning Page and Strzok.
Mueller has so far charged four people in his investigation of possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, most recently former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Of the four, two have pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI - Flynn and a former Trump campaign adviser.
During the Clinton email investigation, Page was a regular participant when Comey would hold “skinny group’’ meetings on the case - a small collection of advisers who gathered to address sensitive cases, according to people familiar with the case.
Current and former FBI officials say the Strzok matter points to a larger unresolved issue facing the agency as it tries to investigate the president and make a fresh start with a new director, Christopher Wray. Much of the agency’s senior leadership jobs are currently filled by people who were put in those positions by Comey, and Wray has yet to make many significant changes at the top. But a major house cleaning by the new director is widely anticipated inside the bureau.
McCabe, the deputy director, has faced repeated questions from the White House and Republican lawmakers about whether he should have been involved in the Clinton case at all - given the hundreds of thousands of dollars in political donations made by a key Clinton ally to McCabe’s wife, a 2015 candidate for political office in Virginia.