FBI agent Strzok feuds with GOP critics at hearing
WASHINGTON - Republicans fought bitterly Thursday with FBI agent Peter Strzok, at a congressional hearing that frequently devolved into shouting matches about political bias between supporters of President Donald Trump and defenders of the agency investigating him.
The mutual contempt felt between Republicans on one side and Democrats and the star witness on the other was palpable from the very first question put to Strzok, whose conduct as the lead agent on FBI probes of Hillary Clinton and the Trump campaign has been sharply criticized by internal Justice Department investigators.
The day-long hearing, which featured far more heated accusations than new information, was a naked display of the animus and agitation in Washington that surrounds the ongoing investigation into whether any Trump associates conspired with Russia to interfere with the 2016 election.
Republicans accused Strzok and the FBI of pursuing politically motivated probes aimed at harming President Trump. Democrats called the entire hearing part a GOP attempt to protect the president by tainting the work of special counsel Robert Mueller III.
Lawmakers talked over each other and the witness, in sometimes starkly personal and intemperate terms.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., chairman of the oversight committee, started the first fracas when he asked Strzok how many individuals he interviewed in the first week of the Russia probe in the summer of 2016.
"I will not, based on direction of the FBI . . . answer that question, because it goes to matters which are related to the ongoing investigations being undertaken by the special counsel's office," Strzok replied.
At that point, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, interjected, threatening Strzok with a contempt citation if he did not answer.
"Mr. Strzok, you are under subpoena and are required to answer the question," Goodlatte said. Minutes earlier, Goodlatte had accused Strzok of "turning justice on its head."
As Republicans berated Strzok over his work on the probes, Democrats sought to defend him through a series of unsuccessful objections and parliamentary maneuvers, leading to arguments among lawmakers about Strzok while he sat listening at the witness table.
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., described the FBI agent as an injured survivor.
"If I could give you a Purple Heart, I would. You deserve one," Cohen said. "It's astonishing to me that you would be put on trial as you have today." Purple Heart medals are awarded to military personnel wounded in combat.
Strzok, a deputy assistant director at the FBI who oversaw counterintelligence cases, was removed from the Trump probe by Mueller in July 2017. At that time, investigators for the Justice Department inspector general discovered text messages between him and then-FBI lawyer Lisa Page in which they repeatedly disparaged Trump and expressed a strong desire that he not win the election.
Strzok's work at the FBI became the subject of intense political battles in Congress after The Washington Post reported in December that he and Page, who had been involved in a romantic relationship, were under investigation by the inspector general over their texts. Page left the FBI earlier this year; Strzok is the focus of an internal investigation that could lead to his firing, but he is still technically an employee of the bureau.
Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, indirectly raised the issue of Strzok's extramarital affair with Page.
"When I see you sitting there with your little smirk, how many times did you look so innocent-looking into your wife's eyes?" Gohmert said.
Lawmakers and the witness then started yelling, while the chairman sought to restore order in the room, and Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., hollered at Gohmert: "You need your medication!"
Once the commotion subsided, Strzok replied, "I have always told the truth. The fact that you would accuse me otherwise . . . goes more to a discussion about your character and what you stand for."
Strzok said that his political opinions did not amount to bias and that FBI personnel are trained not to let their opinions influence their work.
"There is simply no evidence of bias in my professional actions," he said, calling Thursday's hearing "just another victory notch in [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's belt and another milestone in our enemies' campaign to tear America apart," calling it "profoundly painful to watch and even worse to play a part in."
Much of the questioning focused on the text exchanges between Strzok and Page, and their comments about Trump. In one, Page wrote in 2016: "He's not ever going to become president, right? Right?!" Strzok replied, "No. No he won't. We'll stop it."
Strzok said that comment did not reflect any desire to influence an investigation. At the time, he said, he was upset over how Trump had attacked the family of a war hero - a reference to Khizr Khan, the father of a slain U.S. soldier, who spoke at the Democratic National Convention.
The text "was in response to a series of events that included then-candidate Trump insulting the immigrant family of a fallen war hero, and my presumption based on that horrible, disgusting behavior that the American population would not elect somebody demonstrating that behavior to be president of the United States," he said.
At one point in the hearing, Strzok conceded that he "detested" Trump.
Some of the angriest exchanges at the hearing were between Strzok and Gowdy.
At one point, Strzok accused Gowdy of twisting his words, saying: "I don't appreciate what was originally said being changed."
Gowdy shot back: "I don't give a damn what you appreciate, Agent Strzok. I don't appreciate an FBI agent with an unprecedented level of animus working on two major investigations in 2016."
Strzok insisted that his superiors and colleagues "would not tolerate any improper behavior in me any more than I would tolerate it in them. That is who we are as the FBI, 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," he said.
He warned lawmakers that attacks on the FBI's credibility hurt the country.
"The proposition that that is going on and might occur anywhere in the FBI deeply corrodes what the FBI is in American society, the effectiveness of their mission, and it is deeply destructive," Strzok said, prompting cheers from Democrats in the hearing room.
In a 500-page report issued last month, the Justice Department inspector general found no evidence that investigative decisions were affected by the political bias of Page, Strzok or others at the FBI, but issued a report that was nevertheless harshly critical of their conduct, saying the texts exhibited a willingness to take official action to prevent Trump from becoming president.
Page, who served as the chief legal adviser to the FBI's then-deputy director, Andrew McCabe, and Strzok were both part of a small group of senior FBI officials who handled both the Clinton and Trump probes. Within the FBI, those officials were often referred to as the "skinny group" because then-FBI Director James Comey and others sought to keep a tight grip on details of those investigations.
Trump's supporters in Congress have accused Strzok and Page of steering the Clinton probe away from criminal charges and pushing the FBI to aggressively investigate Trump advisers through electronic surveillance and confidential informants. They accuse FBI leadership of making investigative decisions for political reasons and have long sought to question Strzok and other FBI officials about how those cases were handled.
Trump has repeatedly belittled Strzok publicly. On Saturday, the president tweeted: "The Rigged Witch Hunt, originally headed by FBI lover boy Peter S (for one year) & now, 13 Angry Democrats . . . It's a Democrat Con Job!"
Officials said the committees had reached an agreement to question Page behind closed doors on Friday, following an angry back and forth with Page's lawyer Amy Jeffress over what she called "bullying tactics" by the lawmakers.
This article was written by Devlin Barrett and Karoun Demirjian, reporters for The Washington Post.