FBI agent clashes with GOP at hear­ing on Rus­sia probe

The Trentonian (Trenton, NJ) - - NEWS - By Eric Tucker and Mary Clare Jalonick

WASH­ING­TON» Anem­bat­tled FBI agent whose anti-Trump text mes­sages ex­posed the Jus­tice Depart­ment to claims 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 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 purely 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 day long hear­ing, Str­zok came face-to-face with Repub­li­cans who an­grily ar­gued that the texts had tainted two hugely con­se­quen­tial FBI probes he had helped steer: in­quiries into Hil­lary Clin­ton’s email use and pos­si­ble co­or­di­na­tion between the Trump cam­paign and Rus­sia.

“Agent Str­zok had Hil­lary Clin­ton win­ning the White House be­fore he fin­ished in­ves­ti­gat­ing her,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy, Repub­li­can chair­man of the House Over­sight and Govern­ment Re­form Com­mit­tee. “Agent Str­zok had Don­ald Trump im­peached be­fore he even started in­ves­ti­gat­ing him. That is bias.”

Repub­li­can Rep. Dar­rell Issa made Str­zok read his texts aloud, in­clud­ing some with pro­fane lan­guage. House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Bob Good­latte asked the au­di­ence to imag­ine be­ing in­ves­ti­gated by an agent who “hated you” and “dis­par­aged you in all man­ner of ways.”

“Would any­one sit­ting here to­day be­lieve that this was an ac­cept­able state of af­fairs, par­tic­u­larly at an agency whose motto is ‘Fi­delity, Brav­ery and In­tegrity’? I think not,” Good­latte said.

Str­zok re­peat­edly in­sisted the texts, in­clud­ing ones in which he called Trumpa “dis­as­ter” and said “We’ll stop” a Trump can­di­dacy, did not re­flect po­lit­i­cal bias and had not in­fected his work.

He said the Trump in­ves­ti­ga­tion orig­i­nated not out of per­sonal an­i­mus but rather from con­cern that Rus­sia was med­dling in the elec­tion, in­clud­ing what he said were al­le­ga­tions of “ex­tra­or­di­nary sig­nif­i­cance” of a Rus­sian of­fer of as­sis­tance to a Trump cam­paign mem­ber.

He­made clear his ex­as­per­a­tion at be­ing the fo­cus of a hear­ing when Rus­sian elec­tion in­ter­fer­ence had suc­cess­fully sowed dis­cord in Amer­ica.

“I have the ut­most re­spect for Congress’s 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,” Str­zok said.

The hear­ing re­flected a lit­tle-dis­cussed re­al­ity of pub­lic ser­vice: Law en­force­ment agents and other govern­ment work­ers are per­mit­ted to es­pouse po­lit­i­cal views but are ex­pected to keep them sep­a­rate from their work. Str­zok said hewas not alone in hold­ing po­lit­i­cal opin­ions, not­ing that col­leagues in 2016 sup­ported both Clin­ton and Trump but did not re­flect those views on the job.

He in­sisted that sep­a­ra­tion was pos­si­ble. “What Iam 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 un­der ag­gres­sive ques­tion­ing that a much dis­cussed 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 latenight, off-the-cuff text re­flected his be­lief that Amer­i­cans would not stom­ach such “hor­ri­ble, dis­gust­ing be­hav­ior” by the pres­i­den­tial can­di­date.

But, he added in a raised voice and em­phatic tone: “It was in no way — un­equiv­o­cally — any sug­ges­tion that me, the FBI, would take any ac­tion what so ever 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, both the Clin­ton and Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tions were han­dled by large teams

that “would not tol­er­ate any im­proper be­hav­ior inme any­more than I would tol­er­ate it in them.

“That is who we are as the FBI,” Str­zok said in an an­i­mated riff that drew Demo­cratic ap­plause. “And the sug­ges­tion that I, in some dark cham­ber some­where in the FBI, would some­how cast aside all of these pro­ce­dures, all of these safe­guards and some­how be able to do this is as­tound­ing to me. It sim­ply couldn’t hap­pen.”

The hear­ing ex­posed clear par­ti­san di­vides in the House ju­di­ciary and over­sight com­mit­tees, as Democrats ac­cused Repub­li­cans of try­ing to di­vert at­ten­tion from Trump’s ties to Rus­sia through an ex­ces­sive fo­cus on Str­zok. Demo­cratic Rep. Steve Co­hen of Ten­nessee said he would give Str­zok a Pur­ple Heart if he could. Rep. Bon­nie Wat­son Cole­man, D-New Jersey, said, “I have never seen my col­leagues so out of con­trol, so an­gry.”

But Repub­li­cans ea­ger to un­der­mine Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion be­rated Str­zok, cit­ing the texts as ev­i­dence of par­ti­san bias within a law en­force­ment agency sup­posed to steer clear of pol­i­tics. 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 wasn’t tainted by bias.

At one point, Rep. Louis Gohmert, a Texas Repub­li­can, in­voked Str­zok’s per­sonal life by al­lud­ing to the fact the texts were ex­changed while he and Page were in a re­la­tion­ship. Gohmert spec­u­lated about whether he looked “so in­no­cent” when he looked into his wife’s eyes and lied about the af­fair.

The com­ments sparked im­me­di­ate ob­jec­tions from Democrats, who called them out­ra­geous, and Str­zok was livid. He told Gohmert the fact that he would say that to him “shows more what you stand for” than any­thing else. Gohmert tried to shout over him and the com­mit­tee chair­man vainly tried to re­store or­der.

The hear­ing was punc­tu­ated by chaos and yelling as Good­latte said Str­zok needed to an­swer Repub­li­cans’ ques­tions and sug­gested they might re­cess the hear­ing and hold him in con­tempt. Democrats ob­jected to Good­latte’s re­peated at­tempts to get Str­zok to an­swer. Good­latte even­tu­ally let the hear­ing pro­ceed.

AP PHOTO/EVAN VUCCI

Staff mem­bers hold up posters in a House Com­mit­tees on the Ju­di­ciary and Over­sight and Govern­ment Re­form hear­ing Thurs­day, July 12, 2018, in Wash­ing­ton.

AP PHOTO/EVAN VUCCI

FBI Deputy As­sis­tant Di­rec­tor Peter Str­zok tes­ti­fies be­fore the House Com­mit­tees on the Ju­di­ciary and Over­sight and Govern­ment Re­form Thurs­day in Wash­ing­ton.

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