(Bloomberg) -- FBI Agent Peter Strzok, whose anti-Trump text messages have become a litmus test in debate over the Russia meddling investigation, defended his conduct through more than eight hours of congressional questioning and rancorous partisan infighting.
“Not once in my 26 years of defending our nation did my personal opinions impact any official action I took,” Strzok told a joint hearing Thursday of the House Judiciary and Government Oversight committees.
Republicans maintained that bias against Donald Trump by Strzok and others in the FBI and Justice Department “turned our system of justice on its head,” as House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte put it. “We don’t want to read text message after text message dripping with bias against one of the two presidential candidates," added Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican.
Democrats vehemently objected to the proceedings. Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York said the Strzok-Page inquiry and the hearing amounted to “a monumental distraction” from the continuing criminal investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and whether anyone close to Trump colluded in it.
Republicans threatened to hold Strzok in contempt of Congress for saying he couldn’t answer some questions on the advice of the FBI’s counsel, although they took no immediate action. At one point, Democratic aides held up giant photos of defendants with ties to Trump who have been indicted by Robert Mueller, the special counsel now heading the Russia investigation, or have pleaded guilty and are cooperating in the probe.
The moves underscored the extraordinary -- and virtually unprecedented -- spectacle of lawmakers publicly grilling an FBI agent about a sensitive investigation that remains underway.
House Republicans say an anti-Trump attitude infected the FBI and Justice Department in 2016. That was well before Mueller was appointed to take over the Russia inquiry.
Strzok echoed Democrats’ response that he’s a pawn in an effort to undercut or end the investigation into the meddling that U.S. intelligence agencies found was ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I strongly believe today’s hearing is just another victory notch in Putin’s belt and another milestone in our enemies’ campaign to tear America apart," he said.
Strzok said he was “one of a handful of people who knew the details of Russian election interference and its possible connections with members of the Trump campaign. This information had the potential to derail, and quite possibly, defeat Mr. Trump. But the thought of expressing that or exposing that information never crossed my mind.”
Anti-Trump text messages that Strzok exchanged in 2016 with former FBI lawyer Lisa Page -- with whom Strzok was in a romantic relationship -- have brought them both under intense investigative and congressional scrutiny.
‘We’ll Stop’ Trump
Among the text messages that have been made public by the Justice Department’s inspector general was an exchange in August 2016 in which Page fretted that Trump might win the presidency and Strzok assured her “we’ll stop” him.
Strzok testified that the text was a late-night, off-the-cuff response to Trump’s “horrible, disgusting behavior” as a candidate in “insulting the immigrant family of a fallen war hero.”
Page has since left the FBI and Mueller, a Republican, removed Strzok from the Russia investigation once he learned of the texts. Strzok was escorted out of FBI headquarters while disciplinary actions against him are weighed.
“It was not the discovery of the texts that got him fired,” Republican Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina said Thursday. “It was the bias manifest in those texts.”
Trump has made Strzok a target of frequent denunciations. Responding to Trump’s frequent catchphrase for the Russia investigation, Strzok said, “This investigation is not politically motivated. It is not a witch hunt. It is not a hoax.”
In a tweet this week, Trump dismissed the “hate filled and totally biased Emails” by “FBI Agent/Lover Peter Strzok”
Echoing that reference to Strzok’s private life, Republican Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas insinuated that the married agent’s affair with Page was proof he couldn’t be trusted. "How many times did you look so innocent into your wife’s eyes and lie to her about Lisa Page?" Gohmert asked. As Democrats protested, Strzok responded that Gohmert’s remark speaks “more about your character and what you stand for.”
Strzok played leading roles in the FBI’s investigation into Democrat Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and also in the early stages of the FBI’s Russian election interference probe.
Republicans pressed Strzok on the FBI’s use of a dossier with damaging allegations about Trump that was written by former British spy Christopher Steele, financed by Clinton’s campaign and Democrats and commissioned by a firm called Fusion GPS.
Strzok acknowledged that Bruce Ohr, a Justice Department official whose wife worked for Fusion GPS, “gave the FBI documents which included material that I believe originated with Mr. Steele.” Republicans have attacked the FBI and Justice Department for relying, at least partly, on Steele’s Democratic-funded work to obtain a surveillance warrant on Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
Lisa Page didn’t show up for a closed-door interview with the Judiciary and Oversight panels on Wednesday even though she was subpoenaed to provide a deposition. Goodlatte said in a statement Thursday that an agreement had been reached for her to appear for a closed-door interview on Friday that will continue on Monday.
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