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 ClintonHarris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign Nevada Senate passes bill that would give Electoral College votes to winner of national popular vote 2020 Dems break political taboos by endorsing litmus tests 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 TrumpFeinstein, Iranian foreign minister had dinner amid tensions: report The Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Harris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign 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 JordanHillicon Valley: Lawmakers seek 'time out' on facial recognition tech | DHS asks cybersecurity staff to volunteer for border help | Judge rules Qualcomm broke antitrust law | Bill calls for 5G national security strategy Lawmakers call for 'time out' on facial recognition tech Amazon shareholders vote down limits on facial recognition software 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 MeadowsHillicon Valley: Lawmakers seek 'time out' on facial recognition tech | DHS asks cybersecurity staff to volunteer for border help | Judge rules Qualcomm broke antitrust law | Bill calls for 5G national security strategy Lawmakers call for 'time out' on facial recognition tech DeVos family of Michigan ends support for Amash 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 ComeyAttorney General Barr puts former intel bosses on notice Christopher Steele's nugget of fool's gold was easily disproven — but FBI didn't blink an eye Clash with Trump marks latest break with GOP leaders for Justin Amash 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 JohnsonBarr throws curveball into Senate GOP 'spying' probe Bipartisan group of senators introduce legislation designed to strengthen cybersecurity of voting systems Trump Jr. subpoena spotlights GOP split over Russia probes 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 KrishnamoorthiLawmakers celebrate 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote Lawmakers say improving transparency in higher education offers chance for bipartisanship Dem lawmaker calls bipartisan College Transparency Act a 'game changer' for higher education 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 (Bob) Swan MuellerHouse progressive: Pelosi 'has it right' on impeachment Democrats talk subpoena for Mueller Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna: 'I'm not there yet' on impeachment 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.