Republicans press top FBI official on Strzok's role in federal probes

Republicans press top FBI official on Strzok's role in federal probes
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A top FBI official who oversees the bureau's counterintelligence division faced questions from lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Tuesday about the role of FBI agent Peter Strzok in federal probes, The Hill has learned.

Lawmakers and congressional staff questioned Bill Priestap behind closed doors for several hours as part of the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees' joint probe into the FBI's decisionmaking during the 2016 election.

Republicans have been eager to talk to Priestap about his involvement with the bureau's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election as well as its probe into Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonOvernight Defense: Trump tries to quell Russia furor | GOP looks to reassure NATO | Mattis open to meeting Russian counterpart Dem pollster: GOP women have a more difficult time winning primary races than Dems Mellman: (Mis)interpreting elections MORE's use of a private email server while serving as secretary of State — two high-profile investigations where he served in key leadership roles.

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Priestap was also in a supervisory position over Strzok, whose text messages criticizing President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he doesn't want to use 'adversary' to describe Russia Comey urges Americans to vote for Democrats in midterms Roby wins Alabama GOP runoff, overcoming blowback from Trump criticism MORE and other political figures during the 2016 presidential race have become a flashpoint among conservatives critiquing federal law enforcement officials' actions.

"There was a number of times, I would say maybe four different times in that, where he would have the words, 'Peter Strzok' and 'expert' in the same sentence," Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanFormer OSU wrestlers sue university over sex abuse allegations Freedom Caucus lawmakers call on DOJ to probe Rosenstein allegations Lawsuit alleges USA Diving ignored sexual abuse of divers MORE (R-Ohio), an ally of Trump who serves on the Judiciary Committee, told reporters.

"It has kind of confirmed what I've suspected for a long time, that Strzok was a central figure in all of this — the Clinton investigation and the Russia investigation," added Jordan, who is a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.

Allies of the president have alleged widespread misconduct within the FBI and the Justice Department during the presidential election, pointing to exchanges between Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page as further proof of bias against Trump.

"They are trying to get Priestep to basically explain how the organization and pieces work together, and what was Strzok's role in all of that," one source familiar with the hearing told The Hill.

Republicans are also eager to have Page and Strzok to testify before their committees.

"Peter Strzok is obviously a key witness that we need to talk to," said Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsFreedom Caucus lawmakers call on DOJ to probe Rosenstein allegations House GOP questions FBI lawyer for second day Five GOP lawmakers mulling bid to lead conservative caucus MORE (R-N.C.), a close ally of Trump who serves on the Oversight committee.

Strzok's interactions with Page were the subject of criticism by Trump as recently as Tuesday night, when the president included them in a tweet referencing his broader unsubstantiated allegations of political bias by law enforcement during the election.

Priestap was also apparently involved in the controversial decision by then-FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyComey urges Americans to vote for Democrats in midterms Trump calls Brennan ‘a very bad person’ after Putin criticism Buck Wild: 'Is President Trump paranoid or is the Deep State out to get him?' MORE to call Clinton’s handling of her emails “extremely careless” and not the potentially criminal “grossly negligent" during the election.

According to records released earlier this year by Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonJuan Williams: Putin wins as GOP spins GOP senator: Harley-Davidson is right to move some production overseas GOP senator: Trump’s policies doing 'permanent damage' MORE (R-Wis.), Priestap reviewed and provided edits to the statement Comey gave in July 2016 announcing that he would not be recommending charges against Clinton, then the Democratic presidential nominee.

Trump and other Republicans have pointed to the wording change and the revelation that the FBI chief began drafting the statement before he had interviewed Clinton herself as proof that the FBI was trying to protect Clinton from prosecution.

Rep. Raja KrishnamoorthiSubramanian (Raja) Raja KrishnamoorthiHouse GOP questions FBI lawyer for second day Dem calls for hearings on allegations Pruitt retaliated against staffers Crowley stunner sets off new scramble among House Dems MORE (D-Ill.), however, said he felt that Priestap didn't say anything that would indicate there was "political bias that motivated the Hillary Clinton email investigation."

Priestap "completely" backed up everything that Comey said, according to a source familiar with his testimony.

Only three lawmakers — Jordan, Meadows and Krishnamoorthi — attended the hearing, which took place on the first day after a weeklong recess.

Priestap's interview comes after the joint House investigation stalled for months after being first announced.

Republicans are now ramping back up a probe that Democrats have described as a partisan attempt to protect Trump from special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE's investigation.

Priestap's interview was the first of three that the House panels have scheduled for this month.  

Lawmakers also plan to interview Michael Steinbach, the former head of the FBI’s national security division, as well as John Giacalone, who preceded Steinbach as the bureau's top national security official. 

Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz is also expected to soon release his own report on FBI conduct during the Clinton investigation, raising some question about whether he will pre-empt the two other interviews.