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 MeadowsWinners and losers in the border security deal GOP braces for Trump's emergency declaration Rod Rosenstein’s final insult to Congress: Farewell time for reporters but not testimony 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 RatcliffeDems seize on Trump feud with intelligence leaders GOP announces members who will serve on House intel panel Congress can open the door to true digital service delivery in government 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 TrumpBill Kristol resurfaces video of Pence calling Obama executive action on immigration a 'profound mistake' ACLU says planned national emergency declaration is 'clear abuse of presidential power' O'Rourke says he'd 'absolutely' take down border wall near El Paso if he could 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) GaetzHouse passes border deal, setting up Trump to declare emergency Parkland parents create anti-gun violence Valentine’s Day candies: ‘Don’t shoot,’ ‘he’s gone’ House conservatives blast border deal, push Trump to use executive power 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 ClintonO’Rourke heading to Wisconsin amid 2020 speculation The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — Lawmakers scramble as shutdown deadline nears Exclusive: Biden almost certain to enter 2020 race 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 McCabeMcCabe book: Sessions once said FBI was better off when it 'only hired Irishmen' McCabe book: Trump pushed back on officials using Putin claim that North Korea couldn't fire long-range missiles Graham seeks new Rosenstein testimony after explosive McCabe interview 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 GoodlatteIt’s time for Congress to pass an anti-cruelty statute DOJ opinion will help protect kids from dangers of online gambling House GOP probe into FBI, DOJ comes to an end 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.