WASHINGTON (CN) – The FBI agent whose anti-Trump text messages during the 2016 presidential election campaign fueled suspicions the agency is plagued by a partisan bias told lawmakers during a contentious hearing on Capitol Hill Thursday he never allowed his personal opinions to infect his work.
In prepared remarks released ahead of his public testimony before the House Judiciary and Oversight Committees, Peter Strzok said the intense scrutiny he’s received from Republican members of the committees is “just another victory notch in Putin’s belt and another milestone in our enemies’ campaign to tear America apart.”
Strzok, who helped lead FBI investigations into Hillary Clinton’s email use and potential coordination between Russia and Donald Trump’s campaign, is testifying publicly for the first time since being removed from special counsel Robert Mueller’s team following the discovery of the derogatory text messages last year.
The president and Republicans on Capitol Hill have repeatedly charged the text messages exchanged between Strzok and
FBI lawyer Lisa Page colored the outcome of the Clinton email investigation and undercut the FBI’s ongoing investigation into Russian election interference.
In those text messages, Strzok dismissed Trump as “awful” and “idiot” and also expressed dismay after Trump’s victory in November, saying it was “fucking terrifying.”
When Page asked Strzok if he thought Trump was “ever going to become president,” Strzok responded “No. No he won’t. We’ll stop it.”
House Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., contends the messages do more than show political bias between two members of the FBI, but suggest that a greater impartiality has infiltrated the agency and the Justice Department.
But Rep. Elijah Cummings, of Maryland, and Jerry Nadler, of New York, both Democrats, have said the investigation into Strzok is a “political charade” that “elevate far-right conspiracy theories and undermine the special counsel’s ongoing criminal investigation of the President and his campaign aides.”
Trump himself has repeatedly heaped personal attacks on the two FBI officials, and did so again Wednesday night, tweeting “how can the Rigged Witch Hunt proceed when it was started, influenced and worked on, for an extended period of time” by Strzok.
He described the texts as “hate filled and biased.”
Strzok responded Thursday by saying “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.”
He also defended the work of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, saying the investigation of Russian election interference “is not politically motivated, it is not a witch hunt, it is not a hoax.”
But Strzok’s prepared remarks did nothing to mollify Republican lawmakers who quickly went on the attack. As soon as Strzok’s concluded his opening remarks, Rep, Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., launched into questions over the timing for interviews the FBI agent conducted in connection with his role in Russia investigation.
Strzok, with his own attorneys and attorneys from the FBI seated behind him, told Gowdy he would not be able to answer specifics about the investigation since it could interfere with Mueller’s ongoing probe.
The refusal sparked outrage by majority members of the committee and prompted a contentious debate between Republicans and Democrats over the committee’s rules as well as federal procedure.
Strzok attempted to cooperate and offered to answer Gowdy’s question by speaking around the specifics. But when he asked Rep. Goodlatte if he could consult with his attorneys or FBI counsel’s in order to do so, Goodlatte refused his request.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler objected, telling Goodlatte he was “out of order.”
“The gentleman is not in order,” Goodlatte retorted, before telling Strzok if he failed to respond to the committee’s questions, he would begin contempt proceedings against him.
Gowdy questioned Strzok again, this time honing on the language in the texts shared with Lisa Page, particularly those where Page expressed disbelief that Trump would be elected.
Gowdy was insistent that the messages indicate Strzok’s personal beliefs tainted his professional role in the investigation.
“If you were kicked off when Mueller read the texts, shouldn’t you have been kicked off [before] when you wrote them?” Gowdy said.
“No,” Strzok said, explaining that he was removed by special counsel not because the text reflected bias in the investigation but because the “appearance” of it could become an issue later.
“My personal expression of my observing the political process of the presidential primaries had no bearing on any of my actions involved in the investigation of Hillary Clinton or anyone else,” Strzok said, adding his messages were “clearly hyperbole.”
They also were not limited to Trump, he said, noting that he also made cutting remarks about then-candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. and Hillary Clinton.
“I take great offense and great disagreement with your assertion and your suggestion that we can parse down the words of short hand textual conversations like they’re some contract for a car is simply not reflective of how I or others use text messages,” he said. “At no time did any of those texts inject itself into the professional aspect of this job. There were multiple layers of people above me and below me, all of whom were involved in decision [around the investigation]. They would not tolerate improper behavior in me any more than I would tolerate it in them.”
The suggestion that he “somehow in a dark chamber somewhere in the FBI” would go beyond all of the safeguards in place at the agency was a concept that was “corrosive” and “deeply destructive” to democracy, he said to applause in the chamber.
After several hours of heated testimony, Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, grew frustrated with Stzrok’s inability to comment on the pending investigation and flatly called him “a liar.”
“He is lying. He knows he is lying and he’s so good at it, he could pass a polygraph,” Rep. Gohmert said, prompting Rep. David Cicilline to ask Chairman Goodlatte that Gohmert’s “baseless” accusation be withdrawn from the record.
The request didn’t stop Gohmert, who had already raised his voice to be heard over the crosstalk from legislators challenging Gohmert’s comments. Stzrok sat quietly but was smiling.
“How many times did you look into your wife’s eyes and lie to her?” Gohmert said, alluding to Stzrok’s affair with Lisa Page, his onetime colleague at the FBI.
Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-New Jersey, gasped, begging for Goodlatte to call the chamber to order.
“Did he forget to take his medication?” Watson Coleman said of Gohmert.
Ranking democrat Nadler cut in, telling Goodlatte Gohmert’s impugning of Strzok’s character was against House rules. Goodlatte refused the suggestion, saying rules only apply to fellow legislators and President Trump.
When room quieted Strzok asked if he could address Gohmert directly.
“Your decision to bring up my wife, a person I have acknowledged I have hurt, says more about your character than mine, sir,” Strzok said.
Heading into the seventh hour of the hearing Strzok had not yet revealed if he had access to multiple copies of the Trump dossier. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, pressed forward and read from emails Strzok sent to other FBI staffers.
Jordan asked Strzok if he ever communicated with Bruce Ohr, a Department of Justice representative who allegedly learned of the dossier through former British spy Christopher Steele. Steele is also widely credited as the individual who compiled the dossier.
At an earlier point in the hearing, Strzok said he only spoke to Ohr a few times in 2016 and 2017 and would comment no further, indicating the counsel from the FBI would not permit him to go into those details.
But by evening, FBI counsel reversed their decision. After briefly consulting with the attorneys, Strzok told Jordan he could confirm a small but “probably disappointing” piece of information he thought the committee was looking for.
“The FBI did receive documents from Bruce Ohr. Not me personally, but the FBI,” Strzok said.
Jordan then asked the agent if he could confirm whether Nellie Ohr worked for Fusion GPS. Strzok told Jordan counsel prohibited from responding to that line of questioning.