In a testy hearing full of heated exchanges, perhaps the most memorable — at least, in the early hours of what is sure to be an emotionally charged, all-day hearing — was one between former FBI Agent Peter Strzok and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy. It went on for 15 minutes.
Strzok is on Capitol Hill Thursday to answer questions and defend himself, after his anti-Trump text messages with then-FBI official Lisa Page placed him under intense scrutiny, particularly from Republicans. Strzok was chastised in a June Justice Department Department of Inspector General report, which revealed Strzok texted "we'll stop it" in 2016, seemingly referring seemingly to Donald Trump's path to the presidency.
Strzok worked on both the Hillary Clinton email investigation and on special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian election meddling and any ties to the Trump campaign, until he was removed from Mueller's team last year. Republicans' dissatisfaction with Strzok and the FBI's handling of him prompted the joint hearing of the House Oversight and House Judiciary committees Thursday.
The exchange between Gowdy — an outspoken Republican who rose to prominence over his handling of the congressional Benghazi hearings — and Strzok on Thursday ended with Strzok erupting into an impassioned monologue about how his personal texts did not interfere with any investigation, and blasting any attempt to use concerns about his texts to undermine confidence in the FBI.
"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. Furthermore, this isn't just me sitting here telling you, you don't have to take my word for it," Strzok said in a lengthy statement that ended with applause from Democrats. "At every step, at every investigative decision, there are multiple layers of people above me, the assistant director, executive assistant director, deputy director and director of the FBI, and multiple layers of people below me, section chiefs, supervisors, unit chiefs, case agents and analysts, all of whom were involved in all of these decisions."
"They would not tolerate any improper behavior in me any more than I would tolerate it in them. That is who were are as the FBI. And the suggestion that I in some dark chamber somewhere in the FBI would somehow cast aside all of these procedures, all of these safeguards, and somehow be able to do that is astounding to me. It simply couldn't happen. And 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."
Here are a couple of the exchanges that led up to Strzok's response:
"I don't give a damn what you appreciate, Agent Strzok"
At one point, Gowdy asked what the word "it" meant in Strzok's text. On Aug. 8, 2016, two months out from the election, Page said, "[Trump's] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!"
Strzok responded, "No. No he's not. We'll stop it."
On Thursday, Gowdy pressed Strzok to answer what "it" meant.
"What's stop 'it'?" Gowdy asked.
"Chairman Gowdy, that text needs to be taken in the context..." Strzok responded.
"I'm asking, if you want to have a debate over a two-letter word, we're going to have to do that some other time. What and who did you mean by 'it?" Gowdy asked.
"Mr. Gowdy, as I've stated, that text was written late at night in shorthand..." Strzok said, but was cut off by Gowdy.
"I don't care when it was written, I don't care whether it was longhand, cursive, I don't care about any of that. I want to know what 'it' meant, Agent Strzok," Gowdy said.
"It would be his candidacy for the presidency," Strzok said.
The exchange only became more heated from there.
"I don't recall writing that text," Strzok added later, with Gowdy talking over him. "What I can tell you is that text in no way suggested that I or the FBI would take any action to influence the candidacy..."
"Agent Strzok, that is a fantastic answer to a question that nobody asked," Gowdy fired back.
Strozk: What I can tell you, is that text in no way suggested that I or the FBI would take any action to influence the candidate.Rep. Gowdy: That is a fantastic answer to a question nobody asked. https://t.co/3x4HT39ijx pic.twitter.com/roXw3bNPR0— CBS News (@CBSNews) July 12, 2018
Strozk: What I can tell you, is that text in no way suggested that I or the FBI would take any action to influence the candidate.Rep. Gowdy: That is a fantastic answer to a question nobody asked. https://t.co/3x4HT39ijx pic.twitter.com/roXw3bNPR0
At some point, Gowdy became exceptionally frustrated with Strzok, declaring, "I don't give a damn what you appreciate, Agent Strzok, I don't appreciate having an FBI agent with an unprecedented level of animus working on two major investigations during 2016."
That exchange prompted an exasperated Rhode Island Democratic Rep. David Cicilline to speak up, saying, "Can't [Strzok] answer the questions that you promised he would have an opportunity to answer? He endured 15 minutes of badgering of the witness, can he be allowed now to answer as you promised?"
“Can’t [Strzok] answer the questions that you promised he would have an opportunity to answer? He endured 15 minutes of badgering of the witness, can he be allowed now to answer as you promised?” Rep. Cicilline says after Rep. Gowdy grills Strzok https://t.co/3x4HT39ijx pic.twitter.com/eHFy6Dnc2n— CBS News (@CBSNews) July 12, 2018
“Can’t [Strzok] answer the questions that you promised he would have an opportunity to answer? He endured 15 minutes of badgering of the witness, can he be allowed now to answer as you promised?” Rep. Cicilline says after Rep. Gowdy grills Strzok https://t.co/3x4HT39ijx pic.twitter.com/eHFy6Dnc2n
On why Strzok was removed from Mueller's team
At another point, Gowdy demanded that Strzok explain why he had to leave Mueller's team last year.
"Well it wasn't the discovery of your texts Mr. Strzok, it was the existence of your bias that got you kicked off," Gowdy stated.
"No Mr. Gowdy, it wasn't. I do not have bias. My personal opinions in no way—" Strzok said, before he was interrupted.
"Well then why did you get kicked off!" Gowdy fired back.
"Mr. Gowdy, my understanding of why I was kicked off was that based on an understanding of those texts, and the perception that they might create—" Strzok responded. It was, Strzok said, concern about the appearance of bias, rather than bias that caused his removal.
"Well hang on a second Agent Strzok! Gowdy said, interrupting Strzok. "Hang on a second. Perception — you're saying it was the perception! There are 13 Democrats on the special counsel probe, including one who went to what he hoped was a victory party!" Gowdy said, referring to one of the agents who showed up at Hillary Clinton's election party.
For full coverage of Thursday's hearing, visit CBS News' live blog.
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