FBI agent Peter Strzok’s first open hearing on his anti-Trump texts descended into a procedural fist fight as Republicans threatened to hold the witness in contempt for not answering their questions while Democrats attempted to adjourn the proceedings.
The first 90 minutes of the hearing only saw one lawmaker get to question Strzok as the hearing repeatedly descended into chaos with Republicans attempting to get details of the Russian investigation and Democrats using every parliamentary weapon in their arsenal to disrupt proceedings.
At one point the committee paused in questioning to vote on a motion to subpoena Steve Bannon, who had refused to answer the committee’s questions when he testified in January. Democrats made the motion which failed on a party-line vote.
But it was the questions of House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy that started a firestorm with lawmakers shouting at each other as the chair tried to restore order.
Deputy Assistant FBI Director Peter Strzok is sworn in before a joint committee hearing of the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees
Peter Strzok consults with an adviser during the hearing
Gowdy did not hold back in his criticism of Strzok.
“You are the lead investigator, you originated the investigation, you are the point of contact, you drafted the document, & here you are before you interviewed a single solitary witness saying ‘F Trump,'” he said.
The Republican lawmaker then asked Strzok about his August 8, 2016 text with his then-lover, fellow FBI agent Lisa Page, where Strzok reassured Page that she needn’t worry about Donald Trump winning the White House.
Gowdy asked how many interviews Strzok, who was working on the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server, had conducted at that point to make such an allegation.
Strzok checked with the lawyers sitting behind him and then answered that the counsel of the FBI “have directed me not to answer any questions about the ongoing investigation of the Russia.”
Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte responded that ‘your testimony is essential to this hearing” and says the subpoena compels him to answer.
‘I am specifically directing you to answer the question in response to our subpoena,” Goodlatte, the chairman of House Judiciary Committee, demanded.
‘You at risk for a contempt citation,’ he warned Strzok.
And that threat set off a firestorm of fighting and shouting among Republican and Democrats. Republicans wanted to hold Strzok in contempt while Democrats ferociously defended him and tried to end the hearing.
Several Democrats started to demand a point order and when Goodlatte refused to hear them, the lawmakers began to quibble on what is a point of order.
“The gentleman has not cited a rule of he House that is being violated so therefore it is not a point of order,” Goodlatte said in response to Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadler’s demand for clarification.
At that point, Nadler made the motion to adjourn the hearing.
Chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee Rep. Trey Gowdy, left, speaks with the ranking member of the committee Rep. Elijah Cummings during a hearing with FBI Deputy Assistant Director Peter Strzok
Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Rep. Bob Goodlatte tried to keep order as Republicans and Democrats got in a shouting match
Rep. Elijah Cummings speaks as posters of those who have plead guilty to charges stemming from the Russia investigation are displayed
“The gentleman is not recognized,” Goodlatte snapped. He then demanded again that Strzok answer Gowdy’s question.
“Counsel with the FBI is sitting behind me, may I consult with them?” Strzok said.
“Only with your own counsel,” Goodlatte replied.
“So I can’t talk to FBI counsel?” Strzok asked.
“Only our own counsel,” Goodlatte replied.
Strzok turned around to talk to a man seated behind him and then responds: “My counsel has reiterated that counsel for the FBI has said I cannot answer that question.”
Goodlatte told him he was at risk for contempt citation. “You will be subject to recall to allow the committee to consider a contempt citation,” he said.
Gowdy eventually got to resume questioning and he demanded to know Strzok meant by the word ‘it’ in his August 8 text to Page that said: ‘We’ll stop it.’
Strzok started to reply that ‘that text no way in suggested that neither I nor the FBI would take any action to stop…’
Gowdy interrupted him to say: ‘That is a fantastic answer to a question no one has asked.’
Strzok, in his opening statement, told lawmakers Thursday that his work has never been tainted by politics and that the intense scrutiny he is facing represents ‘just another victory notch in Putin’s belt.’
Strzok was testifying publicly for the first time since being removed from special counsel Robert Mueller’s team following the discovery of the derogatory text messages last year. He was also a member of the Russia investigation.
He said in his opening statement that he has never allowed personal opinions to infect his work, that he knew information during the campaign that had the potential to damage Trump but never contemplated leaking it and that the focus on him by Congress is misguided and plays into ‘our enemies’ campaign to tear America apart.’
Peter Strzok, the FBI agent facing criticism following a series of anti-Trump text messages, walks to gives a deposition before the House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in June
President Trump has been critical of Strzok and former FBI agent Lisa Page
Republican members of the House judiciary and oversight committees are expected to grill Strzok for hours as they argue that the text messages with FBI lawyer Lisa Page color the outcome of the Clinton email investigation and undercut the FBI’s ongoing investigation into Russian election interference.
Trump himself has launched personal attacks against the two FBI officials, including a Wednesday evening tweet that asked ‘how can the Rigged Witch Hunt proceed when it was started, influenced and worked on, for an extended period of time’ by Strzok. He described the texts as ‘hate filled and biased.’
Strzok acknowledged that while his text message criticism was ‘blunt,’ it was not directed at one person or political party and included jabs not only at Trump but also at Clinton as well as Sen. Bernie Sanders. He said there was ‘simply no evidence of bias in my professional actions.’
‘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.
He says that he was one of the few people during the 2016 election who knew the details of Russian election interference and its possible connections with people in the Trump orbit, and that that information could have derailed Trump’s election chances. ‘But,’ he said, ‘the thought of exposing that information never crossed my mind.’
Although Strzok has said through his lawyer that he was eager to tell his side of the story, he makes clear his exasperation at being the focal point of a congressional hearing at a time when Russian election interference has been successfully ‘sowing discord in our nation and shaking faith in our institutions.’
‘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 says. ‘As someone who loves this country and cherishes its ideals, it is profoundly painful to watch and even worse to play a part in.’
Strzok says ‘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’
Strzok says the Russian investigation is ‘not a witch hunt’
He also flatly rejected the president’s characterizations of Mueller’s work and the threat of Russian election interference, saying, ‘This investigation is not politically motivated, it is not a witch hunt, it is not a hoax.’
The sharp tone of Strzok’s statement sets the stage for a contentious hearing following hours of closed-door questioning last week. It also reflected an effort to shift attention away from the content of Strzok’s texts and onto what he says is the more pressing issue: the Russians’ ‘grave attack’ on American democracy and continuing efforts to divide the country.
But that’s unlikely to be the focus of Thursday’s hearing. Republicans eager for ways to discredit Mueller’s investigation have for months held up the texts from Strzok and Page to support allegations of anti-Trump bias within federal law enforcement. One message that has received particular attention, and is likely to be discussed at the hearing, is an Aug. 8, 2016 text in which Strzok, discussing with Page the prospect of a Trump win, says, ‘No. No he won’t. We’ll stop it.’
The Justice Department’s inspector general has criticized Strzok and Page for creating the appearance of impropriety through the texts. But the report said it found no evidence of political bias in the FBI’s decision to not pursue criminal charges against Clinton. And many Democrats say actions taken by law enforcement during the campaign season – including announcing a reopening of the investigation into Clinton just days before the election – actually wound up harming the Democratic candidate and aiding the Republican candidate, Trump.
FBI Director Chris Wray says the FBI has referred to internal disciplinary officials employees who were singled out for criticism in the inspector general’s report. Strzok’s lawyer has said he was escorted from the FBI building last month as the disciplinary process winds its way through the system.
Page left the bureau in May. House lawmakers have subpoenaed her to appear for a private interview and warned her that they would begin the process of holding her in contempt if she does not show this week. Her lawyer says Page had offered to voluntarily appear before the committees later this month but needed more clarification about what the lawmakers would be asking.