FBI agent clashes with GOP at hearing on Russia probe

2018-07-13 13:13

An embattled FBI agent whose anti-Trump text messages exposed the Justice Department to claims of institutional bias vigorously defended himself on Thursday at an extraordinary congressional hearing that devolved into shouting matches, finger-pointing and veiled references to personal transgressions.

Peter Strzok spoke publicly for the first time since being removed last year from special counsel Robert Mueller's team because of texts he traded with an FBI lawyer in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

He insisted that he never allowed personal opinions to influence his work, though he did acknowledge being dismayed by Donald Trump's behaviour during the campaign.

"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 a chaotic hearing that spanned 10 hours, he also said the FBI had solid basis to open an investigation into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.

'Victory notch in Putin's belt'

He told lawmakers that he knew information during the campaign that could have damaged Trump but never contemplated leaking it. And he lamented that the continued scrutiny of him was "just another victory notch in Putin's belt".

In breaking his silence, Strzok came face-to-face with Republicans who argued that the texts 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 Representative Trey Gowdy, Republican chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

"Agent Strzok had Donald Trump impeached before he even started investigating him. That is bias."

Republican Representative Darrell Issa made Strzok read some of his texts aloud, including some with profane language.

House Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte asked colleagues to imagine being investigated by someone 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 Trump a "disaster" and said "We'll stop" a Trump candidacy, did not reflect political bias and had not infected his investigations.

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 credible and significant allegations of a Russian offer of assistance to a Trump campaign member.

Discord in America

He made 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' 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 brought to the surface a 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 it was not improper for him to hold political opinions and said he was not alone at the FBI in having them, noting that colleagues in 2016 supported both Clinton and Trump.

"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 Representative Ted Poe, (a Republic from 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 US service member.

He said the late-night, off-the-cuff text reflected his belief that Americans would not stomach such "horrible, disgusting behaviour" 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 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."

Democratic applause

Plus, he said, both the Clinton and Russia investigations were handled by large teams that "would not tolerate any improper behaviour in me 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."

Democratic Representative Steve Cohen of Tennessee said he would give Strzok a Purple Heart if he could.

Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman (a Democrat from New Jersey) said: "I have never seen my colleagues so out of control, so angry."

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