Peter Strzok exhibited an astonishing lack of self-awareness

For ten hours Thursday, FBI Deputy Assistant Director Peter Strzok gave riveting, compelling and, at times, farcical testimony before the House Judiciary and Oversight committees. The political theater reached bizarre levels by ignoring protocol and abandoning any pretense of decorum. Save for the time in 1856 that a man was “caned” into unconsciousness on the Senate floor, I’d venture to say the enmity between political parties couldn’t get worse in Congress.

The lowlights included Rep. Louie GohmertLouis (Louie) Buller GohmertGOP lawmaker: Mueller won't stop until he gets a Trump indictment Obama intel chiefs gave Russia a pass, and now blame — Donald Trump? House GOP questions FBI lawyer for second day MORE (R-Texas). In a contentious back-and-forth with Strzok, whose well-publicized affair with a colleague resulted in the discovery of damning politically charged text messages, Gohmert questioned Strzok’s fidelity, blasted his “smirk” and condemned his conduct as a “disgrace.”

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Gohmert, “How many times did you look so innocent into your wife’s eyes and lie to her?”Not to be outdone were Strzok’s “defense attorneys” — the committees’ Democrats. As if saying “Hold my beer,” here was Rep. Steve CohenStephen (Steve) Ira CohenDem lawmaker predicts Trump Jr., Kushner will be indicted by Mueller Dem leaders fend off calls to impeach Trump There was nothing remotely treasonous in Trump's performance with Putin MORE (D-Tenn.) who lavishly praised the witness before adding this comical, but, for military veterans, highly insulting — pièce de résistance, “If I could give you a Purple Heart, I would.”

 

The Purple Heart, established in 1782, is America’s oldest military decoration. George Washington awarded the first one. One earns it by being wounded in combat.

Yet, for all the partisan grandstanding, it was Strzok, whose voice most of America had never heard, who delivered the most noteworthy performance.

From his opening statement, a copy of which the Associated Press obtained a day prior, Strzok came out swinging. He fidgeted, appeared uncomfortable, but there was perceptible defiance in his voice as he plodded through his opening remarks.

Parroting Democratic talking points, he dismissed the proceedings as “just another notch in Putin’s belt” — because, as you know, congressional oversight of the FBI is such a “victory” for the Kremlin.

His testimony devolved into a laughable defense of the indefensible. His perpetually smug countenance disappeared, at times, when GOP lawmakers questioned the blatant political bias of his text-message exchanges with former FBI attorney Lisa Page.

He continuously lauded his own 26-year service in the U.S. Army and the FBI, and comically appeared incredulous that any of us would have the audacity to question his impartiality in investigations.

He pushed back hard on criticisms of his behavior by clownishly wrapping himself in the flag or angrily conflating the charges leveled against him as attacks on “the men and women of the FBI.”

No, Pete. They were talking about you.

He also exhibited an astonishing lack of self-awareness, only evincing empathy when lawmakers’ own boorish behavior distracted from his performance.

Strzok embarrassed me, a 25-year veteran of the FBI, and many others of his current and former colleagues. I had felt some empathy for him; people make mistakes, after all. But his lack of contrition was appalling. He was an FBI “blue-flamer” — an ambitious ladder-climber whose sights were always fixed on the next rung; reading through his text exchanges with Page, I noted where he lamented promotion decisions and considerations.

His inexperience while testifying was on full display: Seasoned agents don’t melt down under a withering cross-examination; Strzok turned into a wax candle under the congressional sun.

He bluntly asserted that his “personal beliefs” had no impact on his decision-making. Vituperative animus aimed at Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDems make history, and other takeaways from Tuesday's primaries Pawlenty loses comeback bid in Minnesota Establishment-backed Vukmir wins Wisconsin GOP Senate primary MORE and his supporters couldn’t possibly infect his analyses. And he rightly outlined the multiple layers of redundancies in a bureaucracy like the FBI; none of his judgments on two high-profile cases were levied in a vacuum. His defense: Even if he wanted to, he wouldn’t be able to influence the investigations.

He’s right, to a point.

The Department of Justice’s Inspector General (IG) report admonished Strzok for his “political bias.” Yet IG Michael Horowitz, a nonpartisan actor, was quite clear in maintaining that he found no evidence of Strzok’s biases creeping into his work decisions.

Two elements comprise a crime: First is “actus reus” — an action or conduct; the second is “mens rea” – mental intention. Horowitz found that Strzok committed no material action to further his political hostility towards Trump. But does anyone really want to pretend Strzok’s private conversations with Page weren’t indicative of mental intent?

Strzok certainly was aware of the gravity of the situation yesterday. His smugness and combativeness eventually gave way to a mechanical recitation of rehearsed soundbite snippets ostensibly provided by his legal counsel.

Did anyone anticipate he wouldn’t have a slickly prepared response to the “insurance policy” that was discussed in the deputy director’s office? Did anyone think he would be unprepared for queries into his promise to defy the will of the American electorate with his “We will stop it” promise to Page?

Of course not. That “we,” he claimed, referred to the “American voter.”

I never once considered that a rogue FBI agent – or a cabal of senior FBI executives – could pull off election interference as smoothly and effectively as hostile state actors such as Russia, China, North Korea and Iran have only dreamed about.

But let’s not pretend that Strzok’s piety, his professed adherence to FBI guidelines and fealty to the Constitution, were all the “there” there. I’ve long maintained a cautious skepticism about the Trump-Russia collusion investigation, repeatedly stating that it’s not a “witch hunt” but, ultimately, may have devolved into prosecutorial overreach. So, count me as a cautious skeptic of the movement to canonize Strzok.

He’s not the victim here. The victim is the American public, which has lost trust and confidence in the FBI, an institution that it counts on to keep us all safe.

Peter Strzok, like all of us, is a flawed human being. But his flaws tarnished the badge and besmirched the reputation of an agency with “Integrity” in its motto. No, he didn’t pull off what he only mused about doing in text messages; he hasn’t been — probably won’t be — charged with any crimes; he faces sanction by the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility, and separation from the FBI is not outside the realm of possibility.

Strzok was guilty of poor decision-making and hubris — the fatal flaw inherent in so many protagonists in Greek tragedies — that directly led to his downfall.

It’s just a damned shame he had to take the FBI’s reputation down with him.

James A. Gagliano is a CNN law enforcement analyst and retired FBI supervisory special agent. He is an adjunct assistant professor at St. John's University and a leadership consultant at Thayer Leader Development Group (TLDG) at his alma mater, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Follow him on Twitter @JamesAG.