WASHINGTON — Embattled FBI agent Peter Strzok faced off with House Republicans Thursday at a fiery and raucous hearing where he forcefully defended his actions in the Hillary Clinton email and Russia investigations amid sharp attacks over the anti-Trump text messages he sent.
The nearly 10-hour hearing was a charged and chaotic affair with repeated outbursts and shouting matches between lawmakers and several heated and, at times, deeply personal exchanges between the Strzok and congressional Republicans.
“At no time in any of these texts did those personal beliefs ever enter into the realm of any action I took,” Strzok said. “The suggestion that I’m 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.”
But Republicans charged that Strzok’s texts were evidence that he was biased to clear Clinton and go after Donald Trump, grilling him about the messages he exchanged with then-FBI agent Lisa Page, with whom Strzok had an extramarital affair, that led to his dismissal from special counsel Robert Mueller’s team.
“The moment special counsel Bob Mueller found out about Peter Strzok’s text and emails he kicked him off of the investigation,” said House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican. “But that was a year and a half too late. The text and emails may have been discovered in May of 2017, but the bias existed and was manifest a year and a half before that. All the way back to late 2015 and early 2016. So it wasn’t the discovery of texts that got him fired, it was the bias manifest in those texts that made him unfit to objectively and dispassionately investigate.”
Thursday’s hearing, which was the first public appearance Strzok has made since he became a central figure in the Russia investigation, underscored the deep tensions on Capitol Hill over the FBI’s investigations connected to the 2016 election.
The President and his allies have cited the texts between Strzok and Page, who is no longer in the FBI, as evidence that Mueller’s probe is biased against the President, and Trump tweeted about Strzok multiple times in the leadup to Thursday’s hearing.
Gohmert attacks Strzok’s character
As soon as the questions got underway, the hearing devolved into a partisan verbal brawl as House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte struggled to maintain control of the crowded hearing room, which contained more than 70 members between the House Judiciary and Oversight Committees.
There were frequent interruptions, but the loudest came several hours into the hearing when Democrats exploded during a tense exchange between Strzok and Rep. Louie Gohmert, Republican of Texas, who appeared to question Strzok’s character.
“I’ve talked to FBI agents around the country. You’ve embarrassed them; you’ve embarrassed yourself,” Gohmert said. “And I can’t help but wonder, when I see you looking there with a little smirk, how many times did you look so innocent into your wife’s eye and lie to her about Lisa Page?”
“This is an intolerable harassment of a witness!” shouted Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island.
“What is wrong with us? You need your medication,” said Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey.
After some more commotion, Strzok responded: “The fact that you would question whether or not that was the sort of look I would engage with in a family member who I have acknowledged hurting, goes more to a discussion about your character and what you stand for and what is going inside you.”
Chaos amid partisan fights
The partisan fighting began from the very first question of the day, which prompted Goodlatte to threaten holding Strzok in contempt amid Democratic protests over whether Strzok could answer questions about the Russia investigation.
Democrats loudly objected to Goodlatte’s attempts to force Strzok to answer Gowdy’s first question about how many witnesses were interviewed in the opening days of Russia probe.
Strzok said he was directed by FBI’s legal counsel not to answer questions about an ongoing investigation, but Goodlatte demanded that he answer Gowdy’s question, prompting a lengthy delay before Strzok asked to speak to the FBI general counsel.
“Only with your own counsel,” Goodlatte responded.
“Mr. Chairman, there’s no basis for that,” protested the top House Judiciary Committee Democrat, Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York. “He can consult with the FBI counsel, he’s an FBI employee.”
“The gentleman is not recognized,” Goodlatte responded.
“And the chairman is not being proper,” Nadler shot back.
After a lunch recess, Strzok said the FBI was now allowing him answer that question — and he did not recall how many interviews were conducted.
Gowdy and Strzok face off
Gowdy engaged in several heated exchanges with Strzok, with interruptions from Democrats throughout.
“Oh, Agent Strzok, please! Are you kidding?” Gowdy said when Strzok said his texts about impeachment weren’t predetermining an outcome in the Russia investigation.
Strzok argued that Mueller did not remove him from his team because of bias, but because of the perception the texts created.
“I am stating to you it is not my understanding that he kicked me off because of any bias, that it was done based on the appearance,” Strzok said. “If you want to represent what you said accurately I am happy to answer that question, but I don’t appreciate what was originally said being changed.”
“I don’t give a damn what you appreciate, Agent Strzok,” Gowdy responded. “I don’t appreciate having an FBI agent with an unprecedented level of animus working on two major investigations during 2016.”
Strzok sought to explain his texts, including when he told Page “we’ll stop” Trump, which he said was written in response to Trump’s attacks on a Gold Star family during the 2016 campaign.
“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,” Strzok said. “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.”
Republicans highlight text messages
Strzok was pressed by numerous Republicans on his texts and his assertion that his political beliefs did not affect his FBI work.
“When you said you never crossed that bright, inviolable line, what you meant to say was except for 50,000 times, except for hundreds of times a day where I went back and forth, expressing my personal opinions about ‘f’ing’ Trump and stopping Trump and impeaching Trump on official FBI phones, on official FBI time,” said Rep. John Ratcliffe of Texas.
“Agent Strzok, are you starting to understand why some folks out there don’t believe a word you say?” he added.
California GOP Rep. Darrell Issa of California took the step of asking Strzok to read his own text messages out loud at the hearing, including when he called Trump a “douche.”
“Sir, did you not, was it not intelligible?” Strzok asked when Issa asked him to repeat one message. “You just want to hear it, for me to repeat it? Okay sir. Sure, happy to indulge you.”
Goodlatte suggested that Republicans could open a new avenue to investigate Strzok, noting that the text messages on his personal phone have not been turned over and suggesting similar messages might be found. Strzok responded that he won’t provide his personal texts.
Democrats, meanwhile, slammed the Republicans for their attacks on Strzok as an effort to undermine the Mueller investigation.
And Democrats threatened to release the transcript of Strzok’s private interview over Goodlatte’s objections later on Thursday.
“Now call upon the majority to release that transcript in full today,” Nadler said. “This will show that this is the entire joint investigation is at best a partisan distraction from more important matters.”
Page to follow Strzok
For a brief moment, lawmakers floated the idea of Strzok having some company when he appears Thursday — as the committee offered Page a spot to testify at Thursday’s hearing.
Page was subpoenaed to appear for a closed-door interview on Wednesday but defied the subpoena, saying she had not been given sufficient time to review the materials related to her testimony.
Goodlatte told Alisyn Camerota on CNN’s “New Day” Thursday morning that Page had agreed to an interview Friday. Her attorney confirmed to CNN she will be interviewed on Friday and she did not appear at Thursday’s public hearing.
Ahead of the hearing, Nadler and Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, issued a statement Wednesday knocking the questions Republicans had asked of Strzok in the closed session, including queries on his extramarital affair with Page and his vote in 2016.
“This investigation is a political charade — a platform to elevate far-right conspiracy theories and undermine the special counsel’s ongoing criminal investigation of the President and his campaign aides,” Nadler and Cummings said in that statement.
But Goodlatte pushed back at the top of the hearing, defending his committee’s investigation.
“To my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, please replace President Trump’s name with your own name in a small sample of things Mr. Strzok has said,” he said.