FBI agent says work con­duct not bi­ased

The agent’s anti-Trump text mes­sages brought him be­fore a Se­nate panel Thurs­day.

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - - Front Page - By Eric Tucker and Mary Clare Jalonick

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.

EVAN VUCCI/AP

FBI agent Peter Str­zok tes­ti­fies Thurs­day be­fore a House com­mit­tee in Wash­ing­ton.

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