Republicans threaten to hold Peter Strzok in contempt for refusing to answer Russia investigation questions

FBI agent claims his political opinions did not bias his work

Emily Shugerman
New York
Thursday 12 July 2018 19:59 BST
Deputy Assistant FBI Director Peter Strzok is sworn in before a joint committee hearing of the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees
Deputy Assistant FBI Director Peter Strzok is sworn in before a joint committee hearing of the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Republicans have threatened to hold an FBI agent formerly assigned to Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation in contempt for refusing to answer questions about the special counsel's probe during a heated Congressional hearing.

In a hearing that at times threatened to be overtaken by partisan infighting, legislators from both parties admonished 22-year bureau veteran Peter Strzok, who was removed from the investigation of possible Trump team collusion with Russia last summer for sending anti-Trump text messages.

Mr Strzok and his colleague and lover, former FBI lawyer Lisa Page, became symbols of what President Donald Trump and his supporters claim is a pervasive anti-Trump bias within the special counsel investigation after their private messages were released last April.

At a nearly three-hour hearing on Thursday, Mr Strzok defended his work on the special counsel's probe and on the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s private email server, claiming his personal opinions had never influenced his work at the bureau.

“Not once in my 26 years of defending our nation did my personal opinions impact any official action I took,” Mr Strzok told members of the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees.

The idea that professional bias would have been allowed to continue unchecked at the agency, he added, “deeply corrodes what the FBI is in American society and the effectiveness of their mission”.

Asked why Mr Mueller had dismissed him from the probe after uncovering the text messages, Mr Strzok said the special counsel acted out of a desire to “avoid even the appearance of a potential bias”.

Republicans pushed back on these claims, repeatedly quoting text messages in which Mr Strzok told Ms Page that "Hillary [Clinton] should win 100m to zero,” and said of Mr Trump’s election: “We’ll stop it.”

In a particularly tense exchange, Mr Strzok complained that he didn’t appreciate his words being taken out of context, to which Republican Representative Trey Gowdy replied: "I don't give a damn what you appreciate”.

“I don't appreciate having an FBI agent with an unprecedented level of animus working on two major investigations during 2016,” the Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman added.

The animus was apparent from Mr Gowdy’s first question, in which he asked the agent how many people he had interviewed in the first week of the Russia investigation. When Mr Strzok declined to provide details on the ongoing probe, citing instructions from the FBI’s counsel, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte threatened to hold him in contempt.

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But Democrats on the committees occasionally rose to Mr Strzok's defence, interrupting their Republican colleagues and demanding that Mr Strzok be allowed to consult with the FBI's counsel.

“Inquiries about your political opinions are irrelevant and wrong, unless it can be shown – as it has not been – that they affected any decisions in the Russia investigation," Democratic Representative Jerrod Nadler told Mr Strzok at one point.

A Justice Department inspector general’s report issued last month found that Mr Strzok’s actions “created the appearance” of political bias, but found no evidence that this bias had skewed his official decision-making.

Still, Mr Trump has repeatedly cited Mr Strzok and Ms Page as evidence that the special counsel’s investigation is “rigged” against him. The day before Mr Strzok’s hearing, he tweeted: “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?”

Thursday's hearing came after Mr Strzok’s 11-hour, closed-door interview before two Congressional committees last month, where he repeatedly declined to answer questions about the special counsel probe, according to members present. Democrats said on Thursday that they would release a transcript of the interview unless presented with a Congressional rule forbidding them to do so.

Mr Goodlatte has also subpoenaed Ms Page to appear for a deposition or a public hearing, but she has so far failed to comply. The House Judiciary Committee plans to initiate contempt proceedings against the lawyer if she fails to appear by Friday.

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