Politics

Sparks Fly at Joint Hearing to Question FBI Agent Peter Strzok

Trey Gowdy ‘doesn’t give a damn’

FBI Deputy Assistant Director Peter Strzok testifies in front of the House Judiciary Committee and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee during a joint hearing on “‘Oversight of FBI and DOJ Actions Surrounding the 2016 Election” on’ Thursday July 12, 2018. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)

For the first time in a public forum, FBI counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok delivered an impassioned defense against claims from House Republicans that he held biases against candidate Donald Trump that affected his official agency decisions as he helped lead an investigation into ties between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia.

“Let me be clear, unequivocally and under oath: Not once in my 26 years of defending my nation did my personal opinions impact any official action I took,” Strzok testified before a joint panel of the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform Committees.

At the heart of GOP lawmakers’ complaints are a series of texts from August 8, 2016, between Strzok and his alleged mistress, Department of Justice lawyer Lisa Page, in which Strzok wrote to Page, “We’ll stop” a Trump presidency.

The hearing commenced roughly 20 minutes late, but when it did, it started with a bang.

Oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy, a former federal prosecutor well-known for his interrogative theatrics at committee hearings, punctuated a particularly heated exchange after Strzok said he did not appreciate Gowdy’s characterization of some of his comments.

Watch: Discord at Hearing After Strzok Refuses to Answer Gowdy

“I don’t give a damn what you appreciate, Agent Strzok,” Gowdy said. “I don’t appreciate having an FBI agent with an unprecedented level of animus working on two major investigations in 2016.”

After a fierce line of questioning from Gowdy, Strzok was given the opportunity to contextualize his text with Page.

“You need to understand that that was written late at night, off the cuff, and it was in response to a series of events that included then-candidate Trump insulting the immigrant family of a fallen war hero,” Strzok said. “My presumption based on that horrible, disgusting behavior [was] that the American population would not elect somebody demonstrating that behavior to be president of the United States.

Strzok Defends Anti-Trump Text Messages: Look at the Context

“It was in no way, unequivocally any suggestion that me, the FBI would take any action whatsoever to improperly impact the electoral process for any candidate,” Strzok continued. “So I take great offense and I take great disagreement to your assertion of what that was or wasn’t.”

Strzok reiterated to lawmakers that, despite a trove of text messages from 2016 that seem to indicate he had an intense personal distaste for President Donald Trump, he has never allowed personal opinions to affect any of his official work at the agency.

“There is no room for personal belief” while conducting official FBI business, Strzok said in response to a question from Oversight ranking member Elijah Cummings of Maryland.

Strzok noted that FBI agents, like most Americans, have personal political opinions.

But every person in the FBI, “whatever their political beliefs, walks in the door and leaves those behind,” Strzok said.

Strzok told lawmakers in his opening statement that he followed department protocol handling sensitive information about the extent of Russia’s meddling in the U.S. election and the Trump team’s potential role in it.

“This information had the potential to derail, and quite possibly, defeat Mr. Trump,” Strzok said. “But the thought of exposing that information never crossed my mind.”

The hearing Thursday marked Strzok’s first public testimony about his involvement in the 2016 investigations into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia and Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.

The longtime FBI agent helped lead both the Trump campaign and Clinton email investigations at various points in 2016 and was later part of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.

Strzok was removed from Mueller’s team when media outlets obtained and published his text messages with Page.

Republicans, unsatisfied with Strzok’s explanations Thursday, remained on the offensive throughout the hearing.

“Mr. Strzok and others inside the FBI and DOJ turned our system of justice on its head,” Judiciary Chairman Rober W. Goodlatte of Virginia said.

“We don’t want to read text message after text message dripping with bias against one of the two presidential candidates. We don’t enjoy finding compelling evidence that the FBI Director had predetermined the outcome of the case months in advance,” Goodlatte added.

“But that is, thus far, what we have found.”

The hearing often descended into partisan bickering over points of parliamentary order and whether or not Strzok could be compelled to answer questions pertaining to ongoing FBI investigations.

After Gowdy’s first question — how many people had Strzok interviewed in the first eight days after the FBI launched its probe into possible Trump-Russia ties? — Goodlatte threatened Strzok with contempt of Congress.

Judiciary ranking member Jerrold Nadler of New York took sharp exception to Goodlatte’s threat.

“This demand puts Mr. Strzok in an impossible position,” Nadler said. “He is still an employee of the FBI, and the FBI’s counsel has instructed him not to answer the question. If you have a problem with this policy, you should take it up with the FBI — not badger Mr. Strzok.”

The DOJ’s inspector general concluded in a report released last month that department officials committed numerous indiscretions over the course of the Trump campaign investigation in 2016.

But IG Michael Horowitz “did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that improper considerations, including political bias, directly affected those specific investigative decisions,” he told the House Judiciary Committee on June 19.

Strzok said Thursday he has continued working with Horowitz and his team to provide information related to the DOJ’s 2016 Clinton email and Trump-Russia cases.

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