Peter Strzok’s congressional hearing — what it means for Trump-Russia probe

For months, FBI agent Peter Strzok has had a starring role in President Trump’s preferred narrative that the Russia investigation is a deep state witch hunt that’s biased against him.

But on Thursday, Strzok testified for hours at a congressional hearing and gave his side of the story for the first time — and what a hearing it was. (Actually, as of press time it’s still going on, over nine hours after it started.)

In a raucous, partisan, circus-like atmosphere, Strzok repeatedly claimed that his personal political views — expressed in thousands of texts sent to his coworker and lover, Lisa Page — never affected any of his decisions with regards to either the Hillary Clinton email investigation or the Trump-Russia probe (until special counsel Robert Mueller removed him from it last summer).

Strzok insisted that if he really wanted to stop Trump from winning, he could have leaked information about the Russia probe to the press — but that he didn’t. He also emphasized that there were “multiple layers” of officials above and below him at every key moment, who would not have tolerated bias. And he maintained that no one has pointed out any one action that he took as part of his job that was driven by bias.

He also defended the investigation as serious and important. “The information we had which was alleging a Russian offer of assistance to a member of the Trump campaign was of extraordinary significance,” he said. “It was credible. It was from an extraordinarily sensitive and credible source.”

Meanwhile, Republicans contemptuously scorned Strzok’s claims to professionalism, repeatedly quoting from his more inflammatory text messages in an attempt to impugn the investigation. Democrats, meanwhile, became Strzok’s defenders — even though he was sharply criticized in an inspector general report last month, and removed from Mueller’s team. “If I could give you a Purple Heart, I would. You deserve one,” Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) said.

The hearing was a remarkable spectacle, devolving several times into dueling partisan choruses of shouts. One Republican brought up Strzok’s extramarital affair, while Democratic staffers held up posters showing Michael Flynn and others who have pleaded guilty in Mueller’s probe.

What the hearing didn’t do, though, was reveal much new about that Russia probe. Even though Strzok left Mueller’s team nearly a year ago, he repeatedly refused to answer questions about the specifics of the still-ongoing investigation, because the FBI’s lawyers had urged him not to. Instead, Strzok’s goal was to rehabilitate his own reputation — while Republicans’ goal was to rake him over the coals.

Who is Peter Strzok?

AFP/Getty Images

After an FBI career of over two decades, Strzok became the lead agent on the bureau’s counterespionage team. It was there that he had a major role in, first, the Hillary Clinton email investigation, and second, the counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. After special counsel Robert Mueller’s took over the Russia probe in May 2017, Strzok served on his team too.

Strzok was a highly regarded agent with a very good reputation — but he had a secret. Through much of this time, he’d been having an affair with a co-worker: Lisa Page, who worked for then-deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe, and was briefly assigned to Mueller’s probe too. (Both Strzok and Page are married to other people.)

On their work devices, Strzok and Page exchanged thousands of texts in which they frequently discussed investigations they were both involved in — and also shared their views on politics in general. And it turns out that neither were fans of Donald Trump — in fact, they were appalled by him, and repeatedly said so. (You can read the publicly released texts here.)

FBI officials are of course allowed to have their own opinions about politics, though writing them out on work devices and intermingling them with discussions of the sensitive investigations involving those political figures doesn’t really look great.

Yet some of Strzok’s texts arguably have more troubling implications. Particularly, in one late-night exchange from early August 2016, Page expresses fear that Trump will win the presidency, and Strzok answers “No. No he won’t. We’ll stop it.” If by “we” Strzok meant the FBI — which had opened its investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russia ties just over a week earlier — that poses the question of whether Strzok hoped to impact the election through his work.

All this became a problem for Strzok last summer, when Justice Department inspector general Michael Horowitz, who was reviewing FBI leaks and the bureau’s handling of the Clinton email probe, discovered the texts. Horowitz informed Mueller of what they said — and Mueller was sufficiently disturbed that he removed Strzok from his team immediately. (Page had already left Mueller’s team at that point.)

So in a punishment worthy of The Wire, the agent who’d worked on some of the most important investigations in the country was transferred to the human resources division of the FBI. There he worked for a quiet few months — until word of the texting FBI lovers and his removal from Mueller’s team leaked out in December 2017, and the story became a media sensation.

What do Strzok’s texts say about Trump, Clinton, and politics?

Like much of the rest of America, Strzok and Page closely followed the 2016 presidential campaign. Late at night, they exchanged texts about debates, conventions, and whatever the latest political events happened to be.

And they weren’t pure partisans. They expressed their contempt for many political figures from both parties, including Bernie Sanders, Eric Holder, Chelsea Clinton, and various members of Congress. More rarely, they praised some politicians, like Joe Biden and John Kasich. At one point Strzok wrote that he was “a conservative Dem.” About Obama, he wrote, “I like him. Just not a fan of the weakness globally.”

But it’s inarguable that Strzok and Page were particularly appalled by Trump and his candidacy. Strzok wrote that Trump was a “douche,” a “loathsome human,” and that the prospect of Trump winning was “F*CKING TERRIFYING.” Opinions like these, it should be noted, were shared by much of even the Republican establishment at the time.

However, in August 2016, shortly after the FBI opened its counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russia ties, there are a few exchanges that Republicans say raise red flags about whether Strzok and Page’s political views affected their work — two in particular.

  1. On August 9, Page wrote, “He’s not ever going to become president, right?” Strzok answered: “No. No he won’t. We’ll stop it.”
  2. On August 15, Strzok wrote, “I want to believe the path you threw out for consideration in Andy’s office – that there’s no way he gets elected – but I’m afraid we can’t take that risk. It’s like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you’re 40…”

However, Strzok has suggested that both exchanges are being misinterpreted. Strzok suggested Thursday that “we’ll stop” meant that the American electorate (not the FBI) would stop Trump from winning, by voting against him.

As for the “insurance policy” text, Strzok said that there was an internal FBI debate over whether to move forward with the Trump/Russia probe even if that could jeopardize “an extraordinarily sensitive source,” or whether to slow-walk the investigation under the assumption that Trump was sure to lose so it wouldn’t mean much. He says the “insurance policy” simply meant proceeding with the investigation just in case Trump won — not trying to affirmatively stop Trump from winning.

Do Strzok’s texts mean the FBI was biased against Trump?

Even before the story of the texting FBI lovers leaked out, President Trump and his allies (who include key GOP congressional committee chairs) were engaged in a larger effort to discredit the Russia investigation— by alleging supposed wrongdoing by the Justice Department, FBI, or Obama administration officials.

This effort included, among other things, Trump’s phony allegation that President Obama “tapped” his phones (which Rep. Devin Nunes tried to turn into the “unmasking” pseudo-scandal), as well as months of inquiries about how the FBI used the explosive Steele Dossier that alleged Trump/Russia ties.

So naturally, Trump has for months tried to use the Strzok-Page texts to discredit the whole Mueller probe, accusing it of being tainted by Strzok’s bias:

That was the context for the performance of most House Republicans at Thursday’s hearing. They argued that Strzok’s political views meant he would have pushed to let Hillary Clinton off easy on the email investigation in early 2016, while trying to “get” Trump with the Russia investigation.

Here’s the problem — at least so far, no one can point to anything specific Strzok actually did to try and help Clinton win or hurt Trump win, either with regards to the Clinton probe or the Russia investigation.

Now, many of the key Russia probe decisions from this time period still remain secret, and the FBI told Strzok not to answer questions about them at today’s hearing. However, a fuller read of the texts do make clear that Strzok really did take the threat of Russian interference in the election seriously, and wasn’t just contriving it to hurt Trump (“f*cking conniving cheating savages. At statecraft, athletics, you name it,” he wrote).

When it comes to the Clinton probe, DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz published his extensive review of the FBI’s handling of that controversial investigation last month. He wrote that, though he was concerned about Strzok’s potential bias and thought he hurt the FBI’s reputation, he couldn’t actually find evidence of bias affecting his actual investigative decisions.

Horowitz wrote that “Strzok was not the sole decisionmaker” for the key Clinton email probe decisions he reviewed, and that in fact Strzok and Page sometimes “advocated for more aggressive investigative measures” there.

Horowitz did write that he didn’t “have confidence” that one Strzok decision — to prioritize the Trump/Russia probe over reviewing new Clinton emails on Anthony Weiner’s laptop — “was free from bias.” But he also couldn’t show that there was bias there. (After all, there are legitimate arguments that pursuing active Russian interference in the final weeks of the election was the right call, and the new Clinton emails turned out to be unimportant when they were reviewed.)

More broadly, we should keep in mind that Strzok was being supervised all along by FBI counterintelligence chief Bill Priestap (“for whom,” Horowitz wrote, “we found no evidence of bias”). Meanwhile, the FBI was run by James Comey, who’d been a registered Republican for many years, and whose high-profile actions in 2016 were accused of damaging Hillary Clinton’s chances.

What did Strzok say at the hearing?

Thursday’s joint hearing of the House Oversight Committee and House Judiciary Committee was notable for two main reasons — first, because Strzok defended himself publicly for the first time, and second, because of the over-the-top nasty partisan theatrics that took place.

Strzok was an articulate witness, arguing that he was a consummate professional who would never let his political views impact his work, and that his FBI colleagues were similarly professional.

“At no time in any of these texts did those personal beliefs ever enter into the realm of any action I took,” he said. “You don’t have to take my word for it. At every step, at every investigative decision, there were multiple layers of people above me… and multiple layers of people below me.”

He pointed out that he could have leaked information to hurt Trump’s chances of winning, but said that possibility “never crossed my mind.” Sometimes, he suggested that even though the FBI wouldn’t let him answer certain questions (for instance, about the Steele Dossier), those answers wouldn’t be as scandalous as Republicans were hoping for — “I would very much love to answer that,” he said.

As for the “we’ll stop it” text, Strzok said that it was sent in the days after controversy over Trump’s attacks on Khizr Khan, the Democratic Convention speaker and the father of an army captain who was killed in Iraq— and Strzok even reiterated that Trump’s behavior there was “horrible and disgusting.”

In terms of the texts that ‘we will stop’ it, you need to understand that that was written late at night off the cuff and it was in response to a series of events that included then-candidate Trump insulting the immigrant family of a fallen war hero and my presumption, based on that horrible, disgusting behavior, that the American population would not elect someone demonstrating that behavior to be president of the United States.”

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…

And again and again, Strzok returned to the argument that no one has demonstrated that any one of his investigative actions was biased.

Why was the hearing so out of control?

Democrats displayed posters showing the five people who have pleaded guilty in the Mueller probe
CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

Thursday’s hearing came just two weeks after the same members of Congress interviewed Strzok for nearly 11 hours in private — so for them, it wasn’t really about finding new information. Instead, it was a carnival for public consumption.

While Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) gave his opening statement, Democratic staff members held up large pictures of all five people who had pleaded guilty in Mueller’s probe so far, with the word “GUILTY” emblazoned on each.

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) opened the questioning by asking Strzok how many witnesses he’d interviewed in the early days of the Russia probe. But the FBI had advised Strzok not to answer questions about that investigation, so Strzok said he wouldn’t answer.

After a lengthy back-and-forth in which Republicans threatened to hold Strzok in contempt of Congress and outraged Democrats objected and tried to disrupt the proceedings, Gowdy said he already knew the answer the question anyway (zero). So the whole thing just seemed designed to put Strzok in an impossible position, toward no particular end.

Then, Democrats complained that when former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon was interviewed by the committee, he had similarly stonewalled questions because he said the White House didn’t want him to answer — but Republicans seem not to care about that. They briefly postponed the hearing to hold a recorded vote on the matter, which went down on party lines.

The proceedings hit a nadir when Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) asked Strzok, “How many times did you look so innocent into your wife’s eye and lie to her?” Democrats shouted to interrupt him, with one yelling, “You need your medication!”

What’s next?

Thursday’s circus of a hearing comes amidst increasing attacks from Trump and leading House Republicans on the investigation and the Department of Justice.

Key GOP House committee chairmen — Devin Nunes, Bob Goodlatte, and Trey Gowdy — have for months been sending subpoenas flying, trying to get a hold of documents related to the probe.

Publicly, they say all this is about oversight, and making sure the executive branch didn’t abuse its power in investigating the Trump campaign. But Democratic critics argue that they are merely trying to do the president’s bidding, by digging for information Trump can use to publicly attack the investigation.

Indeed, despite the occasional chatter that Trump might fire Mueller or Rosenstein, for the time being he’s preferred to attack them in the court of public opinion. And it’s been a relatively effective strategy so far. Polls show Mueller’s favorability has been dropping, with Republicans increasingly disapproving of the investigation.

But all the while, Mueller has remained in place, with his team continuing to do its work.

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