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Former FBI lawyer Lisa Page gets closed-door grilling from House Republicans

Former FBI lawyer Lisa Page gets closed-door grilling from House Republicans
© Anna Moneymaker

Former FBI lawyer Lisa Page on Friday afternoon faced a grilling from House Republicans keen to uncover any discrepancies between her testimony and Peter Strzok’s, the counterintelligence agent who testified in public for 10 hours the day before.

Where the marathon Strzok hearing was a pageant display of the animosity and deeply divided politics surrounding the bureau, Page’s closed-door deposition led to few fireworks.

She did not answer questions from reporters entering and exiting the House Judiciary Committee’s closed spaces — and the handful of lawmakers who conducted the interview provided few details.

Multiple Republican lawmakers described Page as cooperative and credible — in marked contrast to their vituperative characterizations of Strzok — and said she answered some questions that Strzok would not.

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“We certainly learned additional things today, but I can tell you that the last thing anyone wants to be is falsely accused and her willingness to cooperate today speaks well of her,” said Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsFive takeaways from the first North Dakota Senate debate Live coverage: Heitkamp faces Cramer in high-stakes North Dakota debate Trump changes tone on Saudi Arabia amid mounting pressure MORE (R-N.C.).

The interview is just the first of two slated sessions. Page is scheduled to return on Monday to continue answering questions.

“The overriding issue for us today is, will her testimony match up with his testimony?” said Rep. John RatcliffeJohn Lee RatcliffeHouse Judiciary chairman threatens to subpoena Rosenstein Senate passes key cyber bill cementing cybersecurity agency at DHS Hillicon Valley: Trump stuns with election interference claim against China | FCC limits fees for 5G | Uber reaches 8M settlement over breach | Fox sells Sky stake to Comcast | House passes bills to fix cyber vulnerabilities MORE (R-Texas).

Strzok on Thursday gave a confident and passionate defense of his conduct during the 2016 presidential election, denying that he displayed any bias when exchanging thousands of texts with Page that were critical of then-candidate Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Guardian slams Trump over comments about assault on reporter Five takeaways from the first North Dakota Senate debate Watchdog org: Tillerson used million in taxpayer funds to fly throughout US MORE. The two were having an extramarital affair at the time.

Strzok further infuriated lawmakers when he declined to answer some questions on the instruction of the FBI, where he is still employed.

The appearance of FBI counsel in the interview with Page, who left the bureau in May, also frustrated Republicans Friday.

“Lisa Page is not an FBI employee, but the FBI was here providing counsel and giving her direction as to which questions to answer or not answer and there is a question as to the propriety of that before the House,” said Rep. Matt GaetzMatthew (Matt) GaetzFormer FBI lawyer speaks with House lawmakers on Rosenstein, 2016 House panels postpone meeting with Rosenstein Florida Dems attack GOP campaign as ‘racist’ after Republican labels Gillum 'Kill'em' on crime MORE (R-Fla.), a frequent and vocal critic of the bureau.

Page also defended herself against charges of bias, according to GOP lawmakers in the room, providing context to the texts that they found unpersuasive — if not as patently offensive — as they found Strzok’s self-defense the day before.

One Democratic congressional source said Page appeared less assertive and confident in her answers than Strzok had been. That person added that, two hours into the interview, she did not appear to have contradicted his testimony in any way.

Republican lawmakers see Strzok and Page as the key to exposing what they see as rampant bias within the Justice Department at a time when the bureau was conducting investigations related to both presidential candidates.

Strzok was one of the lead investigators on the Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWatchdog org: Tillerson used million in taxpayer funds to fly throughout US Republicans cancel airtime in swing Vegas district The Democratic Donald Trump is coming MORE email probe and was involved in the beginning days of the federal investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia. Page was a close adviser to then-Deputy Director Andrew McCabeAndrew George McCabeFBI investigated media leak of McCabe comment about Flynn and Trump Clinton's security clearance withdrawn at her request Rod Rosenstein must recuse himself MORE, long a hot target on the right.

In particular, lawmakers have zeroed in on the texts as evidence of anti-Trump bias within the bureau. GOP members involved in the probe have also been interested in the timeline of events surrounding the opening of the FBI’s original counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to the Kremlin.

Democrats see the GOP-led probe — a joint investigation run by the chairmen of the Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform Committees — as a partisan sham designed to undercut special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE’s investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

The leaders of the probe have pushed back fiercely on that assertion, although several conservative members of the panel have used revelations about Strzok and Page to call for the Mueller probe to be shut down. The president and his allies repeatedly have described the federal investigation as a “witch hunt.”

“Our investigation is into what happened in the FBI in two investigations in 2016. It has nothing to do with what Robert Mueller is doing,” Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteRosenstein to appear for House interview next week Fusion GPS co-founder pleads the Fifth following House GOP subpoena House Judiciary chairman threatens to subpoena Rosenstein MORE (R-Va.) said Friday.

Just hours before Page arrived on Capitol Hill, Mueller handed down an indictment of 12 Russian nationals accused of hacking into Democratic political organizations and disseminating the stolen emails.

Page’s appearance on Friday came after she defied a subpoena to appear before the House on Wednesday. Page, at the time, said she had not yet received enough information about the scope of the committee’s questioning and access to her FBI notes and other documents. (Republicans characterized that rationale as an “excuse” and Ratcliffe on Friday suggested that she had intentionally wanted to hear Strzok’s testimony before she spoke to investigators.)

Lawmakers then threatened Page with contempt if she did not appear either publicly with Strzok on Thursday or on Friday behind closed doors.

Page’s texts with Strzok were a focal point of a deeply critical report from the Justice Department inspector general examining the bureau’s handling of the Clinton email investigation.

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?!”

Page left the bureau in May. Mueller removed Strzok from his team after learning of the texts and he was recently escorted from the building in what is believed to be a precursor to his dismissal.

The inspector general, in particular, found that Strzok 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.

Strzok repeatedly made the case on Thursday that his personal political opinions did not inform his professional decisionmaking during the 2016 election.

“At no time, in any of these texts, did those personal beliefs ever enter into the realm of any action I took,” Strzok said, adding that “multiple layers” of agents above and below him at the bureau would not have tolerated any “improper behavior.”

The “we’ll stop it” text, he said, was “written late at night, off the cuff and it was in response to a series of events that included then-candidate Trump insulting the immigrant family of a fallen war hero.”

But his explanations did not satisfy Republicans on Thursday, who hammered him from the dais for everything from bias to perjury to “[looking] so innocently into your wife’s eye and [lying] to her about Lisa Page.”

And despite Republicans’ relatively complimentary assessment of her forthcomingness on Friday, Page’s testimony appears to have done little to calm the waters.

“The specific questions that Lisa Page answered that Peter Strzok did not heightened my concern that the processes at the FBI were contrived to fit the desired outcomes of people who were biased in favor of Hillary Clinton and against Donald Trump,” Gaetz said.

— Olivia Beavers contributed.