5 takeaways from wild hearing with controversial FBI agent
Peter Strzok on Thursday faced a fierce public grilling from House Republicans who view the controversial FBI counterintelligence agent as the key to exposing what they say was systemic bias by top government officials against Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign.
The joint hearing before the House Judiciary and House Oversight and Government Reform committees ran close to 10 hours, with Republicans unleashing on Strzok in what was, from the beginning, a rancorous, partisan cage match.
During the hearing, GOP lawmakers repeatedly scrutinized the details of Strzok’s extramarital affair with former FBI lawyer Lisa Page, with whom he exchanged text messages criticizing Trump and other political figures during the campaign.
Republicans also repeatedly clashed with their Democratic colleagues, who accused them of political theater and claimed they are seeking to undermine special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation examining possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Here are five key takeaways from Thursday’s chaotic hearing:
One of the wildest hearings in recent memory
In a sign of bitter tensions at the hearing, it took 90 minutes for lawmakers to get through even the first question for the FBI agent.
There were not enough seats in the hearing room for all of the lawmakers who wanted to speak, so aides switched out name plates as members shuffled in and out.
Throughout, lawmakers bickered among themselves — often shouting and yelling over one another — about the order of questions and committee rules.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) batted down a number of objections from Democrats, who accused him of making up rules.
Democrats threatened to unilaterally release the transcript of Strzok’s 11-hour closed-door interview with lawmakers from late last month, while Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) also forced a vote on whether the panel would subpoena former White House strategist Stephen Bannon to testify, a motion that failed along party lines.
Lawmakers repeatedly talked over Strzok, who pushed to be allowed to respond to several fiery speeches from Republican lawmakers. During one particularly fiery exchange, Goodlatte threatened to hold the FBI agent in contempt of Congress.
And Strzok pushed back against the claim from Goodlatte that he was appearing under subpoena, insisting that he was there voluntarily. He told one Republican member that his allegations were “insulting.”
Questioning turned personal, prompting outrage
In a jaw-dropping moment midway through the hearing, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) accused Strzok of lying under oath — and then brought up the FBI agent’s extramarital affair with his coworker.
“I can’t help but wonder when I see you looking there with a little smirk — how many times did you look so innocently into your wife’s eye and lie to her about Lisa Page,” Gohmert said.
Democrats erupted at the jab, calling it “outrageous,” “intolerable,” and “harassing the witness.” One lawmaker shouted at Gohmert, “You need your medication!”
But that wasn’t the only uncomfortable moment. Republicans throughout treated Strzok with undisguised disdain.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) at one point asked the FBI agent to read aloud his own texts — sometimes twice.
Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) closed his five minutes with Strzok by announcing, “I’m done with this witness!”
Strzok was allowed to respond to his series of statements — there was only one question — but Ratcliffe never looked at him as he spoke and left before he finished answering.
Strzok hit back at Republicans
Strzok repeatedly punched back at Republican allegations that his text exchanges with Page showed that he was biased in his work at the FBI.
While he was not shy to admit that his negative personal opinion of President Trump — “Fair to say, I’m not a fan, sir,” Strzok told Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.) — he vehemently denied that his personal political opinions impacted his professional work investigating Russian interference or former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s email use.
“Political belief does not equate to bias,” Strzok said.
While the Justice Department inspector general found that Strzok displayed a “biased state of mind” during the Clinton email investigation, he said no decision made during the probe was triggered by bias or improper influence.
In a memorable response to Oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) at the outset of the hearing, Strzok offered a full-throated defense of himself and the FBI, drawing applause from Democrats who have derided the GOP-led probe as a political charade. He described Republican charges of political bias at the FBI as corrosive to the bureau’s mission.
“The proposition that that is going on and that might occur anywhere in the FBI deeply corrodes what the FBI is in American society, the effectiveness of their mission, and it is deeply destructive,” Strzok said.
There are some things Strzok won’t talk about
Thursday’s hearing offered little new information. Republicans largely used their time to rattle off allegations of bias against those at the center of the Russia and Clinton probes, and Democrats accused their GOP colleagues of a political witch hunt.
When he did get questioned, Strzok often frustrated Republican lawmakers by declining to answer them, citing advice from the FBI and his counsel against commenting on ongoing investigations.
A key exchange between the FBI agent and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) turned contentious when Strzok refused to respond to inquiries about his communications regarding the controversial dossier alleging unproven claims about President Trump’s connections to Moscow.
Jordan grilled Strzok on a January 2017 email he allegedly sent to FBI colleagues about BuzzFeed’s forthcoming publication of the dossier. As described by Jordan, the email mentioned “Corn and Simpson” — an apparent reference Glenn Simpson, the founder of Fusion GPS, and David Corn, Mother Jones magazine’s Washington bureau chief who first reported on the existence of the dossier.
But when Jordan pressed Strzok on the identities of “Corn and Simpson,” he refused to answer.
“To answer that question — and I would love to answer that question … and you know why I want to answer that question because you have this information — I cannot answer that question,” Strzok said.
“You wrote about it! It’s now public! Who is Corn? Who is Simpson?” Jordan said.
“Based on direction by the FBI, sir, I am not able to answer questions about ongoing investigative matters,” Strzok said.
His explanation did not satisfy Republicans, who grew increasingly cantankerous.
“I find it stunning that they are not allowing you to answer those questions, Mr. Strzok,” Goodlatte said.
There’s more to come with Lisa Page
In the midst of the fiery hearing Thursday, Goodlatte announced that Page agreed to interview on two separate occasions with the committees conducting the joint investigation into the FBI’s probes from 2016.
Page, a close adviser to former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, is scheduled to first appear for the interview on Friday at 1:30 p.m. Lawmakers will then be able to continue their questioning the following week on July 16, according to a committee press release.
Goodlatte in a statement called the slated testimony “long overdue.”
Page’s anticipated appearance will be a ripe opportunity for Republican lawmakers to press her on a series of issues — particularly because Strzok’s lengthy Thursday testimony on Capitol Hill will be fresh in their minds.
Personal questions about her extramarital affair with the FBI counterintelligence official are likely not off limits if Strzok’s closed-door transcribed interview and public hearing are any indication.
Lawmakers will also have two opportunities to press Page on her involvement with the Clinton and Mueller probes as well the text messages she sent to Strzok.