Peter Strzok, the controversial FBI counterintelligence official who became a White House punching bag for sending critical texts about Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, pushed back angrily against Republican accusations Thursday that he was biased in his work, insisting that he never let his political views affect his investigations.
“Let me be clear, unequivocally and under oath: Not once in my 26 years of defending my nation did my personal opinions impact any official action I took,” Strzok told the House Judiciary and Oversight committees in a grueling daylong hearing marked by harsh partisan sparring and sometimes fiery exchanges about his role.
Strzok added that during the 2016 campaign, he had information that “had the potential to derail and quite possibly defeat Mr. Trump. But the thought of exposing that information never crossed my mind.” He did not reveal the material.
With much of the politically charged session aired live on cable TV, and the midterm election less than four months away, lawmakers lined up to harangue Strzok or to defend him — at one point, more than 75 members from the two panels wanted a turn at the microphone. They broke little new ground, however, and Strzok appeared weary but relatively unscathed after eight hours as the only witness.
In his first public testimony since his anti-Trump texts were disclosed last year, Strzok sat stiffly, held his chin high and struck a combative tone at times, even suggesting the Republican pummeling of the FBI lent tacit support to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to undermine U.S. democracy.
“Today’s hearing is just another victory notch in Putin’s belt and another milestone in our enemies’ campaign to tear America apart,” he said.
Strzok helped lead the FBI’s early investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race and Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of State. Last year, he was reassigned from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team after it emerged he had exchanged private texts critical of Trump with Lisa Page, then an FBI attorney, during the campaign.
Strzok and Page had an extramarital affair at the time. Page also worked on the FBI’s investigations of Russian election meddling and Clinton’s emails.
After their text messages were disclosed, Strzok and Page became targets of House Republicans and especially President Trump, who fired off four tweets since Tuesday alone criticizing the “FBI lovers” in an effort to portray the Mueller investigation as irreparably biased against him.
Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, questioned Strzok’s ability to remain neutral in the investigations given his texts with Page. “We don’t want to read text message after text message dripping with bias against one of the two presidential candidates,” Goodlatte said.
Strzok testified on June 27 before the House Judiciary Committee and the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in a closed-door session that lasted more than 11 hours. Last week, the Judiciary Committee issued a subpoena to bring him in for a second round of questioning, this time in a public hearing.
On Thursday, Strzok emphasized that he regretted that his private messages to Page had caused pain to his family. But he firmly countered accusations that they had revealed an improper bias. While every person has political opinions, he said, FBI agents are trained to leave theirs at the door.
Reading several of Strzok’s text messages back to him, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) accused Strzok of having an “unusual and largely self-serving” definition of bias.
“He thinks promising to stop someone he is supposed to be fairly investigating from ever becoming president isn’t bias,” Gowdy said.
“Strzok even talked about impeachment the day the special counsel was appointed,” he added. “That is prejudging guilt, prejudging punishment, and that is textbook bias.”
House Democrats repeatedly accused Republicans of turning Strzok’s testimony into a “spectacle” and condemned attacks on his personal character.
At one point, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) told Strzok, “I can’t help but wonder when I see you looking there with a little smirk how many times did you look so innocent into your wife’s eyes.…”
Many Democrats gasped and shouted Gohmert down, yelling, “That is outrageous!” and “Shame on you!”
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said the committees’ focus on the “internal workings of the special counsel’s investigation” distracted from more crucial questions about Russian meddling in the 2016 election and the need to protect future U.S. elections from foreign influence.
“In the majority’s view, we do not have time to conduct oversight on almost any national security issue — but we have hours on end to discuss Mr. Strzok’s extramarital affair,” Nadler said.
In one of their text message exchanges, Page asked Strzok, “[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!” Strzok replied, “No. No he won’t. We’ll stop it.” The text surfaced in a Justice Department inspector general report that was sharply critical of Strzok.
In a tense exchange Thursday, Gowdy interrogated Strzok about the meaning of that text and why he was removed from Mueller’s investigation.
“It is not my understanding he kicked me off because of any bias,” but because of the appearance of one, Strzok said. “If you want to represent what you said accurately, I’m happy to answer that question. I don’t appreciate what was originally said being changed.”
“I don’t give a damn what you appreciate,” Gowdy shot back.
Strzok said he sent the text “late at night, off the cuff,” and he attempted to provide context over Gowdy’s repeated interruptions.
The text message, Strzok said, was “a response to a series of events that included then-candidate Trump insulting the immigrant family of a fallen war hero and my presumption, based on that horrible, disgusting behavior, that the American population would not elect someone demonstrating that behavior to be the president of the United States.”
He added that it in “no way” suggested that he or the FBI would interfere with the electoral process for any candidate. His comments were met with applause from House Democrats.
Page resigned from the FBI in May. An FBI spokesperson would not comment on Strzok’s employment status.
On Thursday, House Democrats renewed their long-standing calls for the release of the full transcript of Strzok’s closed-door June 27 hearing. Nadler accused House Republicans of “continuing evasion” and “obfuscation.”
“There’s no legal reason why this transcript should not be released. … There’s only partisan reason,” he said.
Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) told Republicans that they had until 5 p.m. to provide a valid reason for withholding Strzok’s transcript. After the deadline passed, he tweeted that he had sent the transcript to the Department of Justice for redactions and would release it as soon as possible.
The committees have sought to interview Page for months. On Wednesday, she defied a congressional subpoena calling her in for a closed-door hearing, sparking outrage from House Republicans. She agreed Thursday to appear before the two committees on Friday in a closed-door hearing that is expected to continue on Monday.
Times staff writer Chris Megerian contributed to this report.