russia probe FBI agent clashes with GOP
An embattled FBI agent whose anti-Trump text messages exposed the Justice Department to claims of institutional bias vigorously defended himself Thursday at an extraordinary congressional hearing that devolved into shouting matches, finger-pointing and veiled references to personal transgressions.
Peter Strzok spoke publicly for the first time since being removed last year from special counsel Robert Mueller’s team because of texts he traded with an FBI lawyer in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. He insisted that he never allowed personal opinions to influence his work, though he did acknowledge being dismayed by Donald Trump’s behavior during the campaign.
“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 a chaotic hearing that spanned 10 hours, he also said the FBI had solid basis to open an investigation into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign. He told lawmakers that he knew information during the campaign that could have damaged Trump but never contemplated leaking it. And he lamented that the continued scrutiny of him was “just another victory notch in Putin’s belt.”
In breaking his silence, Strzok came face-to-face with Republicans who argued that the texts tainted two hugely consequential FBI probes he had helped steer: inquiries into Hillary Clinton’s email use and possible coordination 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 investigations.
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 credible and significant allegations 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.