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.
“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 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 former FBI agent Lisa Page 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.
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.
Goodlatte threatened to hold Strzok in contempt after the committee devolved into a partisan brawl 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 Judiciary 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.
Gowdy was repeatedly interrupted through the rest of his questions, while he and Strzok got into a heated exchange.
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.”
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.
Strzok is attending the public hearing after he was also subpoenaed last week. His lawyer has argued that the public hearing is an attempt by Republicans to “trap” Strzok, and they have urged the committee’s Republicans to release the transcript of his closed-door interview.
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.
This story has been updated and will continue to update during Thursday’s hearing with additional developments.