'Just another victory notch in Putin's belt': FBI official Peter Strzok testifies before the House Judiciary Committee in a high-stakes hearing

Getty ImagesRussian President Vladimir Putin.
  • The FBI official Peter Strzok testified before the House Judiciary Committee in an open hearing on Thursday.
  • Republican lawmakers are investigating perceived bias within the FBI during the 2016 campaign.
  • Strzok exchanged thousands of text messages with an FBI lawyer named Lisa Page expressing support for the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, and denigrating President Donald Trump and his backers.
  • An internal investigation found that while Strzok’s and other FBI officials’ messages were troubling, they did not affect the FBI’s findings in the Clinton email probe or the Russia investigation.
  • Republicans slammed Strzok on Thursday, while Democrats reiterated that his actions did not affect the outcome of the investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.
  • Strzok said the hearing was “just another victory notch in Putin’s belt,” referring to the Russian president.

Republican lawmakers on Thursday tore into Peter Strzok, the former FBI deputy assistant director.

He was testifying before the House Judiciary Committee as part of the panel’s inquiry into the FBI’s handling of two investigations into the 2016 presidential nominees.

One investigation focuses on Russia’s interference in the 2016 US election and whether President Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with Moscow. The other focused on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.

Strzok has been a lightning rod in the political sphere over the past several months, particularly since it emerged that he and an FBI lawyer named Lisa Page exchanged thousands of text messages before the election expressing support for Clinton and denigrating Trump.

Strzok and Page briefly faded from the spotlight until the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General released a report in June about its internal investigation into the FBI’s handling of the Clinton email probe.

While the report found that the FBI did not let political bias affect its findings in the Clinton investigation, the department’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, also pointed out that it was troubling that senior FBI officials displayed their preference for Clinton over Trump so clearly during a politically sensitive time.

Following the report’s release, Strzok volunteered to appear before Congress, but House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte subpoenaed him. Strzok’s lawyer criticised the move as politically motivated and unnecessary, saying his client had stepped up and offered to be interviewed.

The committee scheduled Thursday’s hearing after Strzok called for a public hearing in the interest of transparency.

Strzok comes out swinging

On Thursday, Goodlatte said Strzok and others within the FBI and DOJ turned the justice system “on its head, and that’s why we’re here today.”

House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, meanwhile, drew attention to specific remarks Strzok had made, including telling Page “we’ll stop” Trump from getting elected, saying it was evidence that Strzok’s actions were politically biased.

In a fiery opening statement, Strzok hit back at GOP broadsides against him as well.

“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, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“As someone who loves this country and cherishes its ideals,” Strzok continued, “it is profoundly painful to watch and even worse to play a part in.”

Strzok also expressed regret for the messages he and Page exchanged, but he emphasised that his opinions did not affect his official actions.

“This is true for the Clinton email investigation, for the investigation into Russian interference, and for every other investigation I’ve worked on,” he told the panel. “It is not who I am, and it is not something I would ever do. Period.”

Goodlatte threatens to hold Strzok in contempt

In one particularly heated exchange, Gowdy asked Strzok how many interviews the FBI conducted between July 31, 2016 – when it launched the Russia investigation – and August 8, 2016.

Strzok said he could not answer the question because he had been instructed not to by the FBI and Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading the investigation.

Gowdy and Strzok went back and forth on the question, then Goodlatte intervened and reminded Strzok that he was testifying after being subpoenaed.

“You are under subpoena and are required to answer the question,” Goodlatte said. “Are you objecting to the question? If so, please state your objection.”

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the committee’s ranking member, interrupted Goodlatte and said Gowdy’s demands placed Strzok in an “impossible situation” because Strzok had been instructed not to answer the question.

“If we have a problem with this policy, we should take it up with the FBI, not badger Mr. Strzok,” Nadler said.

Goodlatte countered, saying Nadler’s comments were not “well taken,” to which Nadler replied, “It’s right on point.”

When Strzok continued to refuse to answer the question, Goodlatte said he did not have a valid legal reason to stay mum. He then ordered Strzok to answer, threatening to hold him in contempt if he did not comply.

Congressional hijinks ensue

Goodlatte’s comments sparked a flurry of protests from Democrats on the panel. The hearing briefly devolved into a shouting match between Republican and Democratic lawmakers, with Goodlatte attempting to compel Strzok to answer Gowdy’s question, and Democrats repeatedly appealing his motions.

When Nadler moved to adjourn the hearing, Goodlatte ignored him and struck down the motion. A smattering of laughter rang out across the room, and Nadler replied, “Mr. Chairman, I think you have no choice but to recognise the motion.”

“I do not,” Goodlatte said.

One committee member said: “Are we just going to make up rules as we go along now? Is that it?”

Goodlatte replied that Nadler could not move to adjourn the hearing while Gowdy still had time to question Strzok.

Nadler again interjected: “I appeal that ruling of the chair … that my motion is not in order.”

“The gentleman is not in order,” Goodlatte said, to which Nadler replied, “That may be, but I appeal your ruling.”

Things escalated further when Strzok asked Goodlatte if he could consult with the FBI’s counsel about whether to answer Gowdy’s questions about the Russia investigation.

When Goodlatte said Strzok was allowed to discuss things with only his own lawyer, Democrats erupted.

Strzok issues blistering takedown of accusations of political bias

Strzok also finally explained on Thursday what he was thinking when he sent a text during the campaign saying “we’ll stop” Trump.

“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,” Strzok said. He was referring to Trump’s mockery of the Gold Star family of US Army Capt. Humayun Khan, who was killed in the Iraq War.

Strzok said that “based on that horrible, disgusting behaviour,” he assumed Americans would not elect Trump.

“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,” Strzok said.

He added that he took “great offence” to Gowdy’s suggestion that he allowed bias to seep into his professional decisions.

“I can assure you, Mr. Chairman, at no time, in any of these texts, did those personal beliefs ever enter into the realm of any action I took,” Strzok said. “Furthermore, this isn’t just me sitting here telling you. You don’t have to take my word for it. At every step, at every investigative decision, there are multiple layers of people above me … and multiple layers of people below me … all of whom were involved in all of these decisions.”

He concluded: “They would not tolerate any improper behaviour in me any more than I would tolerate it in them. That is who we are as the FBI.”

This story is developing. Check back for updates.

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