FBI agent grilled over texts in long, closed-door hearing

FBI agent grilled over texts in long, closed-door hearing
© Greg Nash

Peter Strzok, the counterintelligence agent who texted that “we’ll stop” then-candidate Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE from becoming president, defended himself from allegations of bias during a closed-door interview with House investigators on Wednesday, characterizing his messages as private remarks exchanged in the course of an intimate relationship.

He told investigators from the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees that he regretted the messages, to FBI lawyer Lisa Page, with whom he was having an affair.

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But lawmakers in the room said he repeatedly denied showing political favoritism to former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonAs Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Harris rips Gabbard over Fox appearances during Obama years Steyer, Gabbard and Yang shut out of early minutes of Democratic debate MORE over Trump, at a time when the bureau was juggling investigations related to both presidential candidates.

Beyond that spare accounting, Republicans and Democrats painted very different portraits of Strzok’s more-than-eight-hour interview, which took place behind closed doors and was still ongoing as of 6 p.m. Wednesday.

House conservatives hinted gravely that they had learned unspecified new information that is connected to the FBI’s handling of investigations during the 2016 election — but provided no evidence or specifics to substantiate their claims.

“I’m not teasing you. I promise you — there is additional information that comes out,” Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsMichelle Obama presents Lin-Manuel Miranda with National Portrait Award Sondland testimony looms over impeachment hearings this week Democrats seize on new evidence in first public impeachment hearing MORE (R-N.C.) said, when pressed.

“If they want to ask questions that they already know the answers to, that’s up to them,” he added in an apparent reference to Democrats. “We’re finding additional information.”

Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteUSCIS chief Cuccinelli blames Paul Ryan for immigration inaction Immigrant advocacy groups shouldn't be opposing Trump's raids Top Republican releases full transcript of Bruce Ohr interview MORE (R-Va.) also declined to provide specifics, but said it is his intention to hold an open hearing with Strzok "soon."  

The GOP members who attended the interview — all fierce critics of the FBI and Justice Department (DOJ) — were particularly interested in the timeline of events surrounding the opening of the FBI’s original counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia.

Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanWill Republicans continue to engage in willful blindness? How Democrats can avoid fatal flaws of their impeachment inquiry Live coverage: Schiff closes with speech highlighting claims of Trump's corruption MORE (R-Ohio) also said Strzok gave lawmakers “good information” about the transition from the FBI investigation of the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia to special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerHouse impeachment hearings: The witch hunt continues Speier says impeachment inquiry shows 'very strong case of bribery' by Trump Gowdy: I '100 percent' still believe public congressional hearings are 'a circus' MORE’s probe.

“None of my concerns about political bias have been alleviated based on what I’ve heard so far,” Meadows told reporters.

Democrats, meanwhile, left the meeting convinced that it was nothing more than a partisan witch hunt intended to dig up possible weapons for use against the Mueller probe. Rep. Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinTrump attacks Pence aide who called Ukraine call 'inappropriate' Budget official says he didn't know why military aid was delayed: report Brindisi, Lamb recommended for Armed Services, Transportation Committees MORE (D-Md.) called it a “monumental waste of time.” Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyMaloney wins House Oversight gavel Maloney wins vote for Oversight chairwoman Democrat unveils bill requiring banks to identify suspicious activity related to guns MORE (D-Va.) called it a “farce.”

Judiciary ranking member Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) called the GOP claims of a biased investigation “nonsense” and said Republicans “wasted a lot of time … on stupid questions.”

The interview was just the latest in a series of lengthy House interrogations of Justice Department officials connected to the two probes, and it appeared little had changed in the partisan split-screen on the DOJ.

“The battle lines on this were drawn many months ago,” Raskin said. “They’ve pounced on a handful of these embarrassing texts between two love birds and tried to use that to discredit the entire Department of Justice.”

The interview took place against the backdrop of an escalating feud between House Republicans and the DOJ.

The House is slated to vote on Thursday on a controversial resolution from Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) demanding that the DOJ and FBI hand over sensitive documents sought by congressional Republicans.

GOP members view the resolution, which is not enforceable, as one final warning shot to the law enforcement agency before lawmakers move to impeach or hold senior officials in contempt of Congress.

And on Thursday morning, the Judiciary Committee is set to grill Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod RosensteinDemocrats ask judge to force McGahn to comply with subpoena Democrats ask court to force DOJ's hand on Mueller grand jury materials Washington celebrates diplomacy — and baseball — at Meridian Ball MORE and FBI Director Christopher Wray on the inspector general’s report.

Strzok, who was escorted from the FBI in what is believed to be a precursor to dismissal, is at the center of what the president and his allies on Capitol Hill see as a conspiracy within the Department of Justice to undermine his candidacy. They say Strzok’s texts with Page are clear evidence of anti-Trump bias, and they argue this may have influenced the FBI’s probes given his central role in both the Clinton and Russia investigations.

A 500-page report from Inspector General Michael Horowitz heavily criticized Strzok, finding that he displayed a “biased state of mind” during a critical phase of the Clinton investigation, but that no decision made during the course of the probe was a result of bias or improper influence.

Mueller removed Strzok from his team when Horowitz alerted him of the texts with Page.

Strzok appeared voluntarily — as he had offered to do for weeks — after Goodlatte tabled a subpoena he issued last week to compel a deposition.

He has fiercely defended himself through his lawyer since the release of the inspector general report.

“While Special Agent Strzok openly admitted that he believed that the Russia investigation was far more important to American national security than the Clinton email investigation, this conclusion is evidence of Special Agent Strzok’s lucidity, not his bias,” his lawyer, Aitan Goelman, said when the report was released.

But even critics of the president acknowledge that Strzok’s conduct was deeply unprofessional at best.

The inspector general found that his texts with Page suggested he “might be willing” to take official action to hurt Trump’s electoral prospects.

But despite the “cloud” that the text exchanges between Strzok and Page cast on the investigation, the inspector general found, Strzok was not the sole decisionmaker in any of the incidents the report examined. And in some instances prior to the July announcement, the report notes, Strzok and Page “advocated for more aggressive investigative measures in the Midyear investigation, such as the use of grand jury subpoenas and search warrants to obtain evidence.”

In perhaps the most explosive new revelation from the report, Strzok told Page “We’ll stop it,” after being asked, “[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!”

That text, the report said, was “indicative of a biased state of mind” — and suggested that Strzok may have intentionally slow-rolled the review of emails connected to the Clinton investigation. Emails discovered on a laptop belonging to former New York congressman Anthony Weiner (D) essentially led the Clinton probe to be reopened a little more than a week before the 2016 election.

Strzok, as the No. 2 official in the Clinton investigation, was one of several people who was made aware of the existence of the emails when they were initially uncovered.

But the so-called Midyear team — the investigative unit that had handled the Clinton investigation — did not move to review them until just days before the election, almost a month after FBI officials in New York found them.

Strzok told investigators at the time that he was prioritizing the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.

“Under these circumstances, we did not have confidence that Strzok’s decision to prioritize the Russia investigation over following up on [a] Midyear-related investigative lead discovered on the Weiner laptop was free from bias,” the inspector general said.

Horowitz’s team found no evidence that anyone else on the Midyear team “deliberately placed [the Weiner laptop] on the back burner” — but he nevertheless faulted the delay, arguing that all explanations he was given for not acting sooner were “unpersuasive.”

Then-FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien Comey3 reasons why impeachment fatigue has already set in Day 2 impeachment ratings drop by more than 1 million from first day Chris Wallace on Yovanovitch testimony: 'If you're not moved, you don't have a pulse' MORE eventually ordered a review of the emails and informed Congress of their discovery, a now infamous decision.

The disclosure lit a media firestorm just days before the election. Clinton and her allies believe it pushed Trump over the line.