The epitome of deep-state animus toward President Trump or a forceful spokesman against Republican efforts to undermine the Russia investigation?
You can look at what FBI agent Peter Strzok has privately texted and publicly testified over the past two years to back up whatever case you want to make. Members in Congress did just that Thursday, turning Strzok into a symbol for how a divided America views the Russia investigation.
And so powerful is the symbolism on either side that Strzok is likely to remain a political Rorschach test on the Russia investigation as long as the independent special counsel probe into the Trump campaign and Russian connections exists.
Let's start with the pro-Trump side. For those, especially the president, wanting to make the case that the special counsel investigation started by the FBI during the election is unnecessary and misguided and even biased, Strzok's texts are the perfect illustration of that.
As an FBI agent working two election-year investigations into Hillary Clinton and Trump, Strzok privately disparaged Trump and texted a promise in reference to a question of whether Trump would win the election: “We'll stop it.”
Trump's lead Russia lawyer argued that Strzok's testimony defending himself and that text should disqualify the Mueller probe and end it.
Even those who don't want to go as far as to say the FBI is biased can pull from what Strzok said in private to argue the FBI has at least made big blunders that led to the ongoing Russia investigation.
Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III took Strzok off the Russia investigation when the texts came to his attention, and an independent watchdog at the Justice Department said Strzok's text, along with others disparaging Trump, “was not only indicative of a biased state of mind but, even more seriously, implies a willingness to take official action to impact the presidential candidate’s electoral prospects.”
Democrats and those who want to defend the FBI and Russia investigation haven't gained much traction trying to argue otherwise. Yes, the Strzok texts look bad, and no they're not reflective of the whole agency, they'd say. But that isn't really a bumper-sticker-worthy rallying cry.
That changed Thursday, when a defiant Strzok handed them a reason to not just defend him but to laud him as a hero.
This beleaguered FBI agent went before a hostile Republican-led panel and defended the integrity of the FBI in blunter terms than any other FBI and Justice Department official had been able to put it.
“It, simply, couldn't happen,” Strzok asserted of the notion that he was able to leverage his own personal bias to influence an entire investigation. “The proposition that that is going on, that it might occur anywhere in the FBI, deeply corrodes what the FBI is in American society, the effectiveness of their mission, and it is deeply destructive."
Some in the room applauded. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) likened Strzok to a martyr or hero: “Mr. Strzok, if I could give you a Purple Heart, I would,” he said.
Strzok also presented compelling evidence that he didn't taint the Russia investigation: He had access to information, he said, that could have likely ended Trump's presidential campaign, and he didn't share it.
The background to all this is that the nation is more split than ever over the Russia investigation's validity and importance.
A new Washington Post-Schar School poll finds Americans are split pretty much down the middle (and along partisan lines) about whether they approve of the way Muller is handling the investigation and whether the investigation is a “serious issue” or “more of a distraction.”
Coverage of Strzok's hearing on cable news with a partisan lean reflects that divide.
MSNBC host Rachel Maddow highlighted this from Strzok:
And Fox News invited an actual Purple Heart recipient to share his thoughts on a Democrat saying Strzok should get the medal, too:
On the right at least, there's evidence that using Strzok in particular to discredit the Russia investigation is working. The Post's Emily Guskin reports on the latest polling since the inspector general's report came out in June with Strzok's “We'll stop it” text:
At the beginning of 2018, Mueller held a healthy reservoir of public support, with a national Washington Post-ABC News poll finding 50 percent approved of his handling of the investigation, far higher than the 31 percent who disapproved. And that was down from November, when 58 percent approved of Mueller.
And now that Strzok has handed the left a reason to hold him up as a spokesman for the GOP's undermining of the Russia investigation, the Strzok-Rorschach test isn't likely to go away anytime soon.