Just minutes into FBI counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok’s first public testimony Thursday about his involvement in two 2016 FBI investigations involving presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte threatened Strzok with a contempt of Congress citation.
But if historical precedent is any indication, Goodlatte’s threat to the embattled witness would lead down a long and winding legal road — that would most likely dead-end at the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia’s desk.
Oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy of South Carolina kicked off the questioning Thursday by asking Strzok how many people he interviewed in the first eight days of the FBI’s investigation into possible ties between Trump campaign associates and Russia.
Strzok helped lead the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation and its investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.
“I will not, based on direction of the FBI counsel … answer that question because it goes to matters which are related to the ongoing investigations being undertaken by the special counsel’s office,” Strzok answered.
After Gowdy again tried to pry an answer from him, Democrats loudly objected, leading to a back-and-forth between the two sides of the chamber before Goodlatte restored order and addressed Strzok.
“Mr. Strzok, you are under subpoena and are required to answer the question,” Goodlatte said, before issuing the threat of a contempt citation.
For any contempt of Congress citation to move forward, Goodlatte would need to hold a committee vote on it. Its passage there would be possible since Republicans have the majority of seats. If enough members voted to advance the citation, it would then be kicked to the House floor for a vote by the entire chamber under the same rules as any standard resolution.
With a majority of “yes” votes, the House would send the contempt citation over to the District U.S. attorney’s office — where it would likely meet its end.
In 2012, the GOP-controlled House voted to send a similar contempt of Congress citation to the District U.S. attorney against Attorney General Eric Holder who refused to answer questions about the doomed Operation Fast and Furious weapons crackdown after President Barack Obama invoked executive privilege.
Obama’s Justice Department explained in a letter to Rep. Darrell Issa of California, then the chairman of the Oversight Committee, that “across administrations of both political parties, the longstanding position of the Department of Justice has been and remains that we will not prosecute” officials accused of contempt in such circumstances.
The U.S. attorney’s office tossed the citation.
Strzok did not cite executive privilege to avoid answering Gowdy’s question and other questions throughout the day pertaining to ongoing FBI investigations, but he did cite internal policies of the FBI, which is an executive branch agency whose investigations often deal with classified information.
Leading Democrats flew to Strzok’s defense Thursday, saying Gowdy and others were putting him in an “impossible position” because they knew Strzok was not authorized to answer many of their questions.
“He is still an employee of the FBI, and the FBI’s counsel has instructed him not to answer the question,” New York Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler said. “If you have a problem with this policy, you should take it up with the FBI — not badger Mr. Strzok.”
Former Internal Revenue Service senior official Lois Lerner escaped a similar contempt of Congress citation in 2015 after she was called to testify in front of Issa’s committee a year earlier but refused.