FBI agent defends actions in bristly House testimony
WASHINGTON — The embattled FBI agent who oversaw the opening of the Russia investigation mounted an aggressive defense of himself and the FBI on Thursday, rejecting accusations that he let his private political views bias his official actions and labeling Republicans’ preoccupation with him “another victory notch in Putin’s belt.”
“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,” the agent, Peter Strzok, told House lawmakers investigating what Republicans say is evidence of rampant bias at the top levels of the FBI.
But in defending himself and his agency, Strzok had to
weather hours of blistering attacks by Republicans, who accused him not only of animus toward President Donald Trump but also of blatant lying and moral misconduct with a senior FBI lawyer, Lisa Page.
It was a remarkable day of shouting matches and personal attacks that showcased the deep partisan divide over the federal investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to influence the outcome of the 2016 election. The performance by Republicans, echoing Trump’s own lines of attack, demonstrated just how far many in the party have moved since the days when they were seen as the party of law enforcement, deferential to its power and prerogatives.
Democrats, on the other side of the now-gaping divide over the FBI and Justice Department, said Republicans, by launching their own politically motivated investigation of the investigators in an attempt to bolster Trump, were ignoring an attack by a hostile foreign power on American democracy.
In his first public comments since volumes of private text messages between Strzok and Page were disclosed by the Justice Department’s inspector general, the agent concluded opening remarks with a pointed broadside against his antagonizers.
“I understand we are living in a political era in which insults and insinuation often drown out honesty and integrity,” Strzok said, continuing: “I have the utmost respect for Congress’ oversight role, but I truly believe that today’s hearing is just another victory notch in Putin’s belt and another milestone in our enemies’ campaign to tear America apart.”
He concluded: “As someone who loves this country and cherishes its ideals, it is profoundly painful to watch and even worse to play a part in.”
The fiery hearing, convened by House Judiciary and Oversight committees, devolved into a spectacle almost as soon as it began, as pent-up rage between House Republicans and the FBI broke into the open in spectacular fashion, including with an almost immediate threat to hold Strzok in contempt of Congress after he said the FBI had barred him from answering certain questions.
As the hearing stretched deep into the afternoon, it broke into pandemonium when Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, invoked Strzok’s extramarital affair with Page to question his character.
“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 eye and lie to her?” he said.
Democrats shouted that the statement was “intolerable witness harassment.” Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., demanded, “Do you need your medication?”
Strzok, visibly irked, insisted that he had “always told the truth” and shot back that Gohmert’s invocation of “a family member who I have acknowledged hurting goes more to a discussion about your character and what you stand for.”