Former top FBI counterintelligence official Peter Strzok told House members behind closed doors Wednesday that political views he expressed in personal text messages never swayed decisions made in the FBI’s probes of Hillary Clinton or President Trump — an explanation that Republicans deemed nonsensical.
“I don’t know how you read the texts, I don’t know how any reasonable person reads the texts and suggests there was no bias,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a conservative member of the Judiciary Committee. “I’ve read the text messages, I’ve read emails, I’ve read other information . . . the total absence of bias in any decision-making process is not consistent with the facts that I’ve read.”
Strzok, who played a leading role in the FBI’s investigations of Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state and the Trump campaign’s alleged Russia ties, has come under scrutiny for anti-Trump text messages he exchanged with former FBI lawyer Lisa Page, with whom he was having an extramarital affair. Among them was one message in which Strzok assured Page that “we’ll stop” Trump from becoming president.
The messages were found by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General during its investigation of the Clinton email probe and were featured in a report unveiled to the public this month. That report slammed Strzok and others for showing bias and a “willingness to take official action” to hurt Trump’s electoral chances. But it found no evidence that the FBI’s investigative decisions had been swayed by those biases — largely because Strzok never made those decisions alone. Strzok continues to be employed by the FBI, but the bureau has referred his case to the agency’s Office of Professional Responsibility for a review.
In the meantime, GOP lawmakers have pounced on the messages as evidence that the FBI probes and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation — a team on which Strzok briefly served — could have been influenced by Strzok’s anti-Trump sentiments.
“Even the IG admitted that the bias certainly could have had an indirect effect because of Strzok’s role,” said Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) “You cannot minimize that he was a key component in all the investigations. ”
The House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees interviewed Strzok for 11 hours Wednesday, the last 90 minutes of which were in a classified setting. Emerging from that classified portion, Meadows said that he remains “unconvinced that political bias did not have a factor in some of the decisions” Strzok played a role in — referring specifically to those “on ongoing investigative decisions,” such as the Russia probe.
Republican lawmakers insisted that they had learned more from Strzok’s testimony than was contained in the inspector general’s report — something Democrats disputed, accusing the GOP of rehashing ground already well-covered in the report. Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said Wednesday that the panel intends to have Strzok later testify in a public session as well.
During his closed-door interview, Strzok urged lawmakers to view the text messages simply as banter between two people in a relationship, according to lawmakers present — but Republicans found that rationale unsatisfying.
“If you have intimate personal conversations between two people, that normally would show the intent more so than perhaps something that would be said out in public,” Meadows said.
Strzok also sought on Wednesday to downplay the importance of his political views, stressing to lawmakers that members of the FBI have political opinions like anyone else and that they do not earn or lose assignments based on those views, according to the judiciary panel’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Jerold Nadler (N.Y.).
Following the interview, Nadler and Oversight and Government Reform panel ranking member Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) called on the Republican chairmen of their committees to release the transcript of the nonclassified portion of the interview so the public “can see the Republicans’ desperation” and “how little they have to show for this partisan fishing expedition.”
They and other Democrats also accused the GOP of “desperately trying to find something — anything — to undermine special counsel Mueller’s investigation of the Trump campaign,” and trying to turn Strzok’s texts into a weapon that Trump can use either against Mueller or those at the Justice Department who supervise his probe.
“Essentially I understand the entire campaign to be about a handful of texts between a couple that has now been made more famous than Bonnie and Clyde,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (Md.). “They’d like to basically execute a witch hunt against Strzok and then somehow allege prosecutorial bias and then use that to provoke some kind of constitutional showdown.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has withstood several rounds of epithets from the president over his decision last year to recuse himself from the Justice Department’s Russia probe, allowing Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein to appoint Mueller when FBI Director James B. Comey was fired. Rosenstein is now also in the crosshairs of House Republicans, over documents related to the FBI’s Russia probe that his department has not made available to members of Congress.
The House is expected to vote Thursday on a resolution ordering Rosenstein to furnish those documents. While the resolution cannot force Rosenstein’s hand, supporters and critics alike see it as a politically important preliminary step to measures that conservative members have been advocating, such as holding Rosenstein in contempt of Congress or even trying to impeach him.
Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray are expected to testify to the House Judiciary panel Thursday about the federal law enforcement agencies’ investigations related to the 2016 elections.