The daylong House Judiciary and House Oversight committee hearing delved into chaos a number of times on Thursday, and Congress put its combative side on full display.
Most of the time was used by lawmakers to give speeches, not ask questions of Strzok, who was slapped with a subpoena last week to testify publicly.
The two committees questioned Strzok, a deputy assistant director at the FBI, for 11 hours last month following a Department of Justice Inspector General report that said he had a “biased state of mind” while working on the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server, and later when working on the Russia investigation.
Strzok’s text messages with FBI lawyer Lisa Page, with whom he was having an extramarital affair, were the subject of much of the chaos on Thursday.
The drama first began when House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., asked Strzok in the day’s first question to say how many witnesses he had interviewed in the first eight days of the Russia probe, between July 31, 2016, and Aug. 8, 2016.
Strzok said FBI counsel advised him not to answer, to which Gowdy and other GOP lawmakers objected.
House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., then interjected and ordered Strzok to answer, threatening him with contempt proceedings.
“You are under subpoena,” Goodlatte said.
“I do not believe I am here under subpoena,” Strzok replied, saying he thought he was appearing voluntarily.
“Mr. Strzok is testifying before Congress today under subpoena and therefore he is required to answer all of the Committees’ questions unless he can cite a constitutional privilege that prevents him from answering. Chairman Goodlatte issued a subpoena for Mr. Strzok to testify before the Committees, which is in full force and effect,” a House Judiciary Committee aide told the Washington Examiner in an email after the exchange.
The hearing again broke down into a shouting match when Rep. Louie Gomhert, R-Texas, asked Strzok about his affair with Page.
“There is the disgrace,” Gohmert said. “And it won’t be recaptured anytime soon because of the damage you’ve done to the justice system. And I’ve talked to FBI agents around the country. You’ve embarrassed them. You’ve embarrassed yourself. And 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 about Lisa Page?”
One member could be heard saying, “This is outrageous,” and Strzok said the question from Gomhert “goes more to a discussion of your character.”
Strzok stood defiant and confident, and apologetic at times for his text messages, which the IG said “cast a cloud” over the entire FBI.
“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,” he said from the get-go in his opening statement, calling the hearing “just another victory notch” in Russian President Vladmir Putin’s belt.
Strzok noted that Trump was not the only person he had harsh words for, and previously released text messages show candidates on both sides were targets of his criticism, including Bernie Sanders and former attorney general Eric Holder.
But Trump received most of the barbs, calling him an “idiot,” a “douche” and a “loathsome human,” and at one point, Strzok told Page “we’ll stop” the then-Republican candidate from becoming president.
“Like many people, I had and expressed personal political opinions during an extraordinary presidential election,” Strzok said. “Many contained expressions of concern for the security of our country — opinions that were not always expressed in terms I am proud of.”
He added that his conduct has never run foul of the law, but he was still “sorry for these texts and the way they have been used and the hurt they have caused.”
Strzok elaborated on another message he sent on Election Night, when he called a Trump victory “terrifying.”
“You need to understand that was written late at night, off-the-cuff, and in response to a series of events that included candidate Trump insulting the immigrant family of a fallen war hero,” Strzok said, referring to then-candidate Trump’s criticism of the family of a fallen soldier.
“My presumption, based on that horrible, disgusting, behavior, [was] that the American population would not elect somebody demonstrating that behavior to be president of the United States,” he said. “It was in no way any suggestion that me, the FBI would take any action.”
Strzok called the text messages to Page often ones written “late at night” and “off-the-cuff,” even admitting that he had information about the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign — but did expose it even though it had the “potential to derail, and quite possibly, defeat Mr. Trump.”
“To suggest somehow we can parse down the words of short hand textual conversations like they’re some contract for a car is simply not consistent with my or most people’s use of text messaging,” he said. “The suggestion that I in some dark chamber somewhere in the FBI would somehow cast aside all of these procedures, all of these safe guards, and somehow be able to do this is astounding me. It simply couldn’t happen. And the proposition that it is going on, that it might occur anyway in the FBI, deeply corrodes what the FBI is in American society.”
Strzok was also briefly detailed to special counsel Robert Mueller’s team. Mueller took over the Russia probe in May 2017.
Mueller removed Strzok after the text messages were made public, but the latter defended the removal because of the “appearance” of bias, not the bias itself.
“It is not my understanding that he kicked me off because of any bias,” Strzok told Gowdy. “It was done because of the appearance. If you want to represent what you said accurately, then I’m happy to answer that question, but I don’t appreciate what was originally said being changed.”
Gowdy snapped back: “I don’t give a damn what you appreciate, Agent Strzok. I don’t appreciate having an FBI agent with an unprecedented level of animus working on two major investigations during 2016.”
Democrats made it clear they thought the hearing was a “circus” and “ridiculous,” and an effort to chip away at the integrity of federal law enforcement, as well as Mueller’s investigation.
“This hearing is a kangaroo court. It is a three-ring circus,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y. “It is not even meritorious of an investigation by Ace Ventura, Pet Detective let alone 75 members of the United State Congress.”
One lawmaker even suggested giving Strzok a Purple Heart for sitting through testimony he dubbed an “attack.”
“If I could give you a purple heart, I would,” Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., said, adding, “It’s astonishing to me that you would be put on trial as you have today.”
Trump has often taken to Twitter to express his feelings about Strzok and Page, labeling them “lovers.”
Page defied a subpoena from the House Judiciary and Oversight committees on Wednesday, and her lawyer accused the GOP majority of “bullying tactics.”
“Ex-FBI LAYER Lisa Page today defied a House of Representatives issued Subpoena to testify before Congress! Wow, but is anybody really surprised! Together with her lover, FBI Agent Peter Strzok, she worked on the Rigged Witch Hunt, perhaps the most tainted and corrupt case EVER!” said Trump in a Wednesday night tweet.
Trump added an hour later: “How can the Rigged Witch Hunt proceed when it was started, influenced and worked on, for an extended period of time, by former FBI Agent/Lover Peter Strzok? Read his hate filled and totally biased Emails and the answer is clear!”
Goodlatte and Gowdy threatened to hold her in contempt of Congress as early as Friday, but the former announced Page had agreed to sit for an interview Friday and Monday with the two panels.