By MARY CLARE JALONICK, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — An FBI agent who worked on separate investigations into Democrat Hillary Clinton and President Donald Trump’s campaign defended himself behind closed doors for more than 11 hours Wednesday as House GOP lawmakers stepped up efforts to highlight what they say is bias at the Justice Department.
Peter Strzok exchanged anti-Trump texts with a colleague, FBI attorney Lisa Page, as both worked on the Clinton investigation and briefly on special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia. House Republicans have seized on the texts as part of investigations into the Justice Department, the FBI and decisions that both made during the 2016 presidential election. In one of the texts, from August 2016, Strzok wrote, “We’ll stop it,” in reference to a potential Trump election win.
The barrage of GOP criticism against the Justice Department comes just a few months before the midterm elections, and amid intense sparring between the parties over the FBI’s role in the Russia probe. The House is scheduled to vote Thursday on a resolution demanding the department hand over thousands of documents that Congress has requested by July 6.
Strzok’s questioning by lawmakers on the House Judiciary and the Oversight and Government Reform committees began before 10 a.m. Wednesday and ended after 9 p.m. The last two hours were held in a small classified session after lawmakers said Strzok had declined to answer sensitive questions about internal FBI protocols and the Russia probe, among other issues.
The interview showed no signs of changing entrenched partisan opinions — Republicans speaking outside the interview appeared unconvinced by an internal Justice Department report released earlier this month that detailed Strzok and Page’s texts but ultimately found no evidence that bias affected the decision not to bring charges against Clinton.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., the chairman of the Oversight panel, said in an interview that bias is “pervasive” and “impossible to separate out.” Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., one of the most vocal critics of the Justice Department, said midway through the interview that while it’s possible Strzok’s individual bias didn’t affect the Clinton investigation, he believes that “what we are finding is the text messages were indicative of other decisions that were made or not made throughout the initiation of the Russia investigation” in the summer of 2016.
Frustrated Democrats called the interview a farce. In a statement after the interview was completed, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Oversight panel, and Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel, suggested they had learned nothing new and called for the Republican chairmen to release the unclassified portion of the interview transcript so people “can see the Republicans’ desperation for themselves.”
Cummings and Nadler said in a joint statement that they had just finished the interview, and “as today’s transcript will make crystal clear, House Republicans are desperately trying to find something — anything — to undermine Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation of the Trump campaign. Unfortunately for them, they were entirely unsuccessful today, and their interview of Mr. Strzok will not help their misguided mission.”
Lawmakers leaving the interview said that Strzok expressed regret for the text messages and said FBI agents often hold political opinions but they don’t affect their decisions.
Strzok was recently escorted from the FBI building as his disciplinary process winds through the system, his lawyer has said. He “remains a proud FBI agent” who wants to serve his country but has been the “target of unfounded personal attacks, political games and inappropriate information leaks,” according to a statement last week from lawyer Aitan Goelman.
A seasoned counterintelligence agent, Strzok had a leading role on the investigation into whether Clinton illegally mishandled classified information through her use of a private email server while secretary of state. He later joined Mueller’s team investigating Russian election interference, but was reassigned last summer after the discovery of anti-Trump text messages he had traded with the FBI lawyer. Page had already left Mueller’s team when the messages were discovered and has now left the FBI.
Earlier this week, President Donald Trump criticized the closed-door interview with Strzok, saying it should be “shown to the public on live television, not a closed door hearing that nobody will see.”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., said near the end of Strzok’s interview that the witness was ordered by FBI counsel not to answer many of the questions asked. Goodlatte said he will hold a public hearing soon and that “I hope he will be more forthcoming at that time.”
The Strzok interview is one of several events this week in which House Republicans are criticizing the Justice Department. At a contentious session Tuesday, the GOP-led Judiciary panel approved the resolution requesting the department provide documents, despite an existing agreement to do so that was announced by House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office over the weekend.
Meadows and Republican Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio were behind that resolution, which would not be enforceable but would send a strong message to Justice officials.
Justice and FBI have already turned over more than 800,000 documents to congressional committees, but subpoenas from the Justice and Intelligence panels are demanding additional materials. Lawmakers have threatened to hold top Justice officials in contempt or impeach them if the documents aren’t turned over.
On Thursday, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein will appear at an open hearing to testify about both investigations and the documents Republicans are seeking. Goodlatte said he intends to use Thursday’s hearing to question Wray and Rosenstein about complying with the requests and that he encouraged “others to do the same.”