FBI agent says work conduct not biased
The agent’s anti-Trump text messages brought him before a Senate panel Thursday.
WASHINGTON — An embattled FBI agent whose anti-Trump text messages exposed the Justice Department to Republican allegations of institutional bias launched a vigorous defense Thursday at an extraordinary congressional hearing that devolved into shouting matches, finger pointing and veiled references to personal transgressions.
Peter Strzok testified publicly for the first time since being removed from special counsel Robert Mueller’s team, which is probing possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia, following the discovery of the texts last year. He said the communications with an FBI lawyer in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election reflected personal opinions that he never once acted on, though he did acknowledge being dismayed during the campaign by the Republican candidate’s behavior.
“At no time, in any of those texts, did those personal beliefs ever enter into the realm of any action I took,” Strzok told lawmakers.
In breaking his silence at a daylong hearing, Strzok came face-to-face with Republicans who argued that the texts had tainted two FBI probes he had helped steer: inquiries into Hillary Clinton’s email use and the Mueller probe.
“Agent Strzok had Hillary Clinton winning the White House before he finished investigating her,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy, GOP chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “Agent Strzok had Donald Trump impeached before he even started investigating him. That is bias.”
Strzok repeatedly insisted the texts, including one in which he called Trump a “disaster,” did not reflect political bias and had never infected his work. He said the FBI’s Trump investigation originated not out of personal animus but rather from concern that Russia was seeking to meddle in the election.
He made clear his exasperation at being the focal point of a congressional hearing when Russian election interference has been “sowing discord in our nation and shaking faith in our institutions.”
“I have the utmost respect for Congress’ oversight role, but I truly believe that today’s hearing is just another victory notch in (Vladimir) Putin’s belt and another milestone in our enemies’ campaign to tear America apart,” Strzok said.
The hearing underscored a reality of law enforcement and government: agents and federal workers hold political views but are expected to keep them out of their work. Strzok insisted that separation was possible. “What I am telling you is I and the other men and women of the FBI, every day take our personal beliefs, and set those aside in vigorous pursuit of the truth — wherever it lies, whatever it is.”
To which Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, responded: “And I don’t believe you.”
Strzok said that a muchdiscussed August 2016 text in which he vowed “we’ll stop” a Trump candidacy followed Trump’s denigration of the family of a dead U.S. service member. He said the text, written late at night and off-the-cuff, reflected his belief that Americans would not stomach such “horrible, disgusting behavior” by the presidential candidate.
But, he added in an emphatic tone, “It was in no way — unequivocally — any suggestion that me, the FBI, would take any action whatsoever to improperly impact the electoral process for any candidate. So, I take great offense, and I take great disagreement to your assertion of what that was or wasn’t.”
Plus, he said in an animated riff that drew Democratic applause, both the Clinton and Russia investigations were handled by large teams that “would not tolerate any improper behavior in me anymore than I would tolerate it in them.
“That is who we are as the FBI,” he said.
But Republicans eager to undermine Mueller’s investigation berated Strzok, holding up the texts as evidence of partisan bias within a law enforcement agency meant to steer clear of political considerations. An inspector general report blamed Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page for creating an appearance of impropriety through their texts but found that the outcome of the Clinton investigation was not tainted by bias.
At one point, Rep. Louis Gohmert, R-Texas, alluded to the fact the texts were exchanged while he and Page were in a relationship. Gohmert speculated about if he looked “so innocent” when he lied to his wife about the affair.
The comments sparked objections from Democrats, who called them outrageous, and left Strzok livid. He told Gohmert the fact that he would say that to him “shows more what you stand for” than anything else.
FBI agent Peter Strzok testifies Thursday before a House committee in Washington.