Judge rejects DOJ effort to block Trump deposition in lawsuit over ex-FBI agent Peter Strzok's firing
Peter Strzok was fired after months of public ridicule by then-President Trump.
A federal judge has ruled that former President Donald Trump can be deposed in a lawsuit over the firing of veteran FBI agent Peter Strzok.
The ruling from U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson came late Thursday, one day after the Justice Department asked her to -- once and for all -- block Trump from being deposed in the suit.
The Justice Department had argued that deposing Trump "is not appropriate," especially since there is no evidence in the case indicating that the FBI fired Strzok at Trump's direction, even if that's what Trump wanted to happen.
But in her ruling Thursday rejecting the Justice Department's effort, Berman Jackson said that even though evidence gathered so far -- including testimony from FBI director Chris Wray last week -- "did not advance [Strzok's] theory that the former President was involved in the decision making at issue in this case, the fact remains that the former President himself has publicly boasted of his involvement."
Strzok filed suit against the Justice Department and the FBI in 2019, claiming his First Amendment rights were violated when he was wrongfully terminated the year before over private text messages with then-FBI attorney Lisa Page reflecting anti-Trump sentiments.
In 2016, Strzok had helped launched the FBI's investigation into alleged ties between Trump's presidential campaign and Russia, and he initially joined special counsel Robert Mueller's team but was reassigned after internal investigators discovered the private text messages.
The lawsuit alleges that Strzok's firing "was the result of a long and public campaign by President Trump and his allies to vilify Strzok and pressure the agency to terminate him."
Berman Jackson, the federal judge presiding over the case, has called Trump "a key witness to what took place."
But after much legal wrangling, Berman Jackson ruled that Strzok couldn't depose Trump without deposing Wray first, concluding that Wray's statements could render Trump's deposition moot, especially if Wray were to say under oath that the FBI's deputy director -- not Wray -- made the decision to fire Strzok and that he never discussed Strzok's firing or Trump's views about it with the deputy director.
In a heavily-redacted motion filed Wednesday, in which DOJ attorneys asked Berman Jackson to block Trump's deposition, the Justice Department suggested that is exactly what Wray said in his deposition last week.
"Whatever wiggle room there might have been is now gone," Justice Department lawyers told the judge.
Other senior-level government officials who communicated with Trump have also provided sworn testimony in the case, including Trump's former chief of staff John Kelly, who said that Trump privately wondered whether Strzok and Page could be disciplined, but that he didn't recall Trump ever saying that to Wray or anyone else at the FBI.
Kelly said in a sworn declaration that, while he found notes from two meetings with Trump in February 2018 and July 2018 referencing Strzok and Page, he did not take notes every time Trump brought them up.
"President Trump generally disapproved of taking notes in meetings," Kelly said in the declaration. "He expressed concern that the notes might later be used against him."
With his lawsuit, Strzok is seeking reinstatement, back pay, and unspecified monetary damages.
Page, who resigned from the FBI three months before Strzok was fired, is also suing the federal government, claiming the Justice Department and FBI violated the Privacy Act by publicly releasing her private text messages. She is seeking unspecified monetary damages.
Both lawsuits cite an array of tweets and public statements from Trump in the run-up to Page's resignation and Strzok's firing from the FBI.
"I am amazed that Peter Strzok is still at the FBI, and so is everybody else ... Peter Strzok should have been fired a long time ago," Trump said at the White House in June 2018, two months before Strzok was fired.
The Justice Department has defended its actions, saying in its motion on Wednesday, "There is ample evidence that the employee's misconduct was the reason for his removal and consistent testimony about the process the FBI followed in reaching its disciplinary decision."
And in its motion on Wednesday, the Justice Department signaled that it is willing to appeal the matter to a federal appeals court should Berman Jackson refuse to block Trump from being deposed in the coming weeks.
Trump has derided the Russia probe as a "hoax" and has long attacked Strzok and Page for their roles in it, even suggesting at times that they should be imprisoned.
A review of the initial investigation by the Justice Department's inspector general found no evidence "that political bias or improper motivation influenced the decisions" made by Strzok and others. And while a more recent report by special counsel John Durham said "confirmation bias" led FBI officials to take unnecessarily intrusive steps, the report also said the evidence gathered did not support charges against Strzok or any other senior FBI official.