WASHINGTON -- Republicans sparred with FBI agent Peter Strzok from the very first question at a hearing Thursday over politically charged investigations, threatening him with a contempt citation for refusing, at the direction of an FBI lawyer, to answer questions about the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Strzok, who was the lead agent on FBI probes into Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump's presidential campaign and is now the subject of an internal misconduct probe, was asked by Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, how many individuals he interviewed in the first week of the Russia probe in the summer of 2016.
"I will not, based on direction of the FBI ... answer that question, because it goes to matters which are related to the ongoing investigations being undertaken by the special counsel's office," Strzok replied, at a joint hearing of the Judiciary and Oversight committees.
At that point, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, interjected, threatening Strzok with a contempt citation if he did not answer the question.
"Mr. Strzok, you are under subpoena and are required to answer the question," Goodlatte said.
Democrats immediately challenged Goodlatte, accusing him of treating Strzok unfairly and seeking unsuccessfully to adjourn the hearing.
Strzok testified publicly for the first time since being removed from special counsel Robert Mueller's team after the discovery of derogatory text messages he traded with an FBI lawyer. He told lawmakers the texts in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election reflected personal views that he had never acted on, angrily rejecting Republican allegations that he had set out to stop Trump from becoming president.
"At no time, in any of those texts, did those personal beliefs ever enter into the realm of any action I took," Strzok said.
The hearing brought a defiant Strzok face to face with Republican lawmakers who for months have held up his texts as the embodiment of anti-Trump bias within the FBI. In breaking his monthslong silence, Strzok vigorously defended his handling of two hugely sensitive investigations in which he played a leading role: inquiries into Clinton's email use and possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.
He insisted the FBI had good cause two years ago to start investigating whether the Trump campaign was working with the Kremlin amid allegations of what he described as a Russian offer of assistance to a Trump campaign associate. He characterized the anti-Trump text messages as personal communications that he never envisioned becoming public and denied that they had swayed his actions.
Strzok insisted under aggressive questioning that a much-discussed August 2016 text in which he said "we'll stop" a Trump presidency followed Trump's denigration of the family of a fallen U.S. service member. He said the text, written late at night and off-the-cuff, reflected his belief that the American public would not stomach such "horrible, disgusting behavior" by the Republican presidential candidate.
In opening the hearing, Goodlatte said Strzok and other senior FBI officials "turned our system of justice on its head, and that's why we're here, and why this matters."
The ranking Democrat on the panel, Jerrold Nadler of New York, urged Republicans not to use the Strzok hearing to attack Mueller.
"I know that the majority wants a fight with Mr. Strzok today," Nadler said. "Leave the special counsel alone to do his job."
Strzok's appearance at a joint hearing of the Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees was highly charged from the very first question, as he faced off against GOP lawmakers who have long denounced his conduct.
Strzok, a deputy assistant director at the FBI who oversaw counterintelligence cases, was removed from the Trump probe by Mueller in July 2017. At that time, investigators for the Justice Department inspector general discovered text messages between him and then-FBI lawyer Lisa Page in which they repeatedly disparaged Trump and expressed a strong desire that he not win the election.
Strzok's work at the FBI became the subject of intense political battles in Congress after The Washington Post reported in December he and Page, who had been involved in a romantic relationship, were under investigation by the inspector general over their texts. Page left the FBI earlier this year; Strzok is the focus of an internal investigation that could lead to his firing, but he is still technically an employee of the bureau.
Strzok denied his political opinions influenced the investigations.
"Not once in my 26 years of defending my nation did my personal opinions impact any official action I took," Strzok said. "There is simply no evidence of bias in my professional actions."
Strzok also said Thursday's hearing "is just another victory notch in [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's belt and another milestone in our enemies' campaign to tear America apart," calling it "profoundly painful to watch and even worse to play a part in."
In one 2016 text exchange, Page wrote: "He's not ever going to become president, right? Right?!" -- to which Strzok answered, "No. No he won't. We'll stop it."
The inspector general found no evidence that investigative decisions were affected by the political bias of Page, Strzok or others at the FBI, but issued a report that was nevertheless harshly critical of their conduct, saying the texts exhibited a willingness to take official action to prevent Trump from becoming president.
Strzok has already spoken at length to the House Judiciary Committee privately; Democrats have demanded -- without success -- that the Republican-controlled committee release the transcripts.
On Wednesday, House Republicans signaled they may try to hold Page in contempt of Congress unless she agrees to testify by today about her role in the FBI's probes.
Page served as the chief legal adviser to the FBI's then-deputy director, Andrew McCabe.
Page and Strzok were both part of a small group of senior FBI officials who handled both the Clinton and Trump probes. Within the FBI, those officials were often referred to as the "skinny group" because then-FBI Director James Comey and others sought to keep a tight grip on details of those investigations.
Trump has repeatedly belittled Strzok publicly. On Saturday, the president tweeted: "The Rigged Witch Hunt, originally headed by FBI lover boy Peter S (for one year) & now, 13 Angry Democrats ... It's a Democrat Con Job!"
Officials said the committees had reached an agreement to question her privately today, following an angry exchange with Page's lawyer Amy Jeffress over what she called "bullying tactics" by the lawmakers.
Information for this article was contributed by Devlin Barrett and Karoun Demirjian of The Washington Post; and by Eric Tucker, Mary Clare Jalonick and Chad Day of The Associated Press.
A Section on 07/13/2018
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