WASHINGTON – An embattled FBI agent whose anti-Trump text messages exposed the Justice Department to claims of institutional bias vigorously defended himself at an extraordinary congressional hearing that devolved into shouting matches, finger-pointing and veiled references to personal transgressions.
Peter Strzok on Thursday testified publicly for the first time since being removed from special counsel Robert Mueller’s team following the discovery of texts last year that were traded with an FBI lawyer in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.
In a chaotic hearing that spanned 10 hours, he insisted he never allowed personal opinions to affect his work, though he did acknowledge being dismayed by Donald Trump’s behaviour during the campaign. He also said he had never contemplated leaking damaging information he knew about the Trump campaign. And he called the hearing “just another victory notch in Putin’s belt,” referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“At no time, in any of those texts, did those personal beliefs ever enter into the realm of any action I took,” Strzok told lawmakers.
In breaking his silence, Strzok came face-to-face with Republicans who argued that the texts had tainted two hugely consequential FBI probes he had helped steer: inquiries into Hillary Clinton’s email use and possible co-ordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.
“Agent Strzok had Hillary Clinton winning the White House before he finished investigating her,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy, Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “Agent Strzok had Donald Trump impeached before he even started investigating him. That is bias.”
Republican Rep. Darrell Issa made Strzok read some of his texts aloud, including some with profane language. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte asked colleagues to imagine being investigated by someone who “hated you” and “disparaged you in all manner of ways.”
“Would anyone sitting here today believe that this was an acceptable state of affairs, particularly at an agency whose motto is ‘Fidelity, Bravery and Integrity’? I think not,” Goodlatte said.
Strzok repeatedly insisted the texts, including ones in which he called Trump a “disaster” and said “We’ll stop” a Trump candidacy, did not reflect political bias and had not infected his work.
He said the Trump investigation originated not out of personal animus but rather from concern that Russia was meddling in the election, including what he said were allegations of “extraordinary significance” of a Russian offer of assistance to a Trump campaign member.
He made clear his exasperation at being the focus of a hearing when Russian election interference had successfully sowed discord in America.
“I have the utmost respect for Congress’ oversight role, but I truly believe that today’s hearing is just another victory notch in Putin’s belt and another milestone in our enemies’ campaign to tear America apart,” Strzok said.
The hearing brought to the surface a little-discussed reality of public service: Law enforcement agents and other government workers are permitted to espouse political views but are expected to keep them separate from their work. Strzok said he was not alone in holding political opinions, noting that colleagues in 2016 supported both Clinton and Trump but did not reflect those views on the job.
“What I am telling you is I and the other men and women of the FBI, every day take our personal beliefs, and set those aside in vigorous pursuit of the truth — wherever it lies, whatever it is.”
To which Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, responded, “And I don’t believe you.”
Strzok said under aggressive questioning that a much-discussed August 2016 text in which he vowed “we’ll stop” a Trump candidacy followed Trump’s denigration of the family of a dead U.S. service member. He said the late-night, off-the-cuff text reflected his belief that Americans would not stomach such “horrible, disgusting behaviour” by the presidential candidate.
But, he added in a raised voice and emphatic tone: “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. So, I take great offence, and I take great disagreement to your assertion of what that was or wasn’t.”
Plus, he said, both the Clinton and Russia investigations were handled by large teams that “would not tolerate any improper behaviour in me anymore than I would tolerate it in them.
“That is who we are as the FBI,” Strzok said in an animated riff that drew Democratic applause. “And the suggestion that I, in some dark chamber somewhere in the FBI, would somehow cast aside all of these procedures, all of these safeguards and somehow be able to do this is astounding to me. It simply couldn’t happen.”
The hearing exposed clear partisan divides in the House judiciary and oversight committees, as Democrats accused Republicans of trying to divert attention from Trump’s ties to Russia by excessively focusing on Strzok.
Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee said he would give Strzok a Purple Heart if he could. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-New Jersey, said, “I have never seen my colleagues so out of control, so angry.”
But Republicans eager to undermine Mueller’s investigation berated Strzok, citing the texts as evidence of partisan bias within law enforcement. An inspector general report last month blamed Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page for creating an appearance of impropriety through their texts but found that the outcome of the Clinton investigation wasn’t tainted by bias.
At one point, Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Texas Republican, invoked Strzok’s personal life by alluding to the fact the texts were exchanged while he and Page were in a relationship. Gohmert speculated about whether he looked “so innocent” when he looked into his wife’s eyes and lied about the affair.
The comments sparked immediate objections from Democrats, who called them outrageous, and Strzok was livid. He told Gohmert the fact that he would say that “shows more what you stand for” than anything else. Gohmert tried to shout over him and the committee chairman vainly tried to restore order.
When Strzok declined to answer some questions on the Russia probe, Goodlatte suggested Republicans might recess the hearing and hold him in contempt. Democrats objected and Goodlatte eventually let the hearing proceed.
In his opening statement, Strzok acknowledged that while his text message criticism was “blunt,” it wasn’t directed at one person or party and included jabs not only at Trump but also at Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
He said he was one of the few people in 2016 who knew the details of Russian election interference and its possible connections with the Trump campaign, and that that information could have derailed Trump’s election chances. But, he said, “the thought of exposing that information never crossed my mind.”
FBI Director Chris Wray has said employees who were singled out for criticism by the inspector general have been referred to internal disciplinary officials. Strzok’s lawyer said he was escorted from the FBI building last month as the disciplinary process proceeds.
Page, who left the FBI in May, is expected to be interviewed by lawmakers behind closed doors on Friday after being subpoenaed to appear.
Associated Press writer Chad Day in Washington contributed to this report.
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