FBI agent Peter Strzok had his moment on an extremely hot seat Thursday in a contentious hearing that quickly devolved into angry yelling, interjections and parliamentary maneuvering. Appearing before a joint session of the House Oversight and Judiciary committees, Strzok sought to explain his anti-Trump text messages at a time when he was the lead agent on the FBI’s then-nascent Russia investigation in 2016. He was removed from the investigation in 2017 after those text messages with fellow FBI employee Lisa Page, with whom he was having an affair, were discovered. Here are the key moments from the hearing.
It didn’t take long for the hearing to explode. After the opening statements, House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., lodged his first question: How many people did Strzok interview during the first eight days of the FBI’s Russia investigation, between July 31 and Aug. 8, 2016?
Strzok, as he previewed in his opening statement, said he had been advised by the FBI’s lawyers that he was not to address specifics of what is still an ongoing investigation. Republicans quickly objected and threatened to hold Strzok in contempt. Democrats noted that it was unusual that Strzok be asked to disclose such details in a public setting.
Strzok said he didn’t have to answer the question because, despite being subpoenaed by the committee, he had previously said he would speak voluntarily.
“Mr. Chairman, I do not believe I am here under subpoena,” Strzok said. “I believe I am here voluntarily. Based on that, I will not answer that question.”
Strzok’s angry retort
After more than 20 minutes of maneuvering and posturing following the subpoena discussion, Gowdy ended his interrogation of Strzok, and Strzok was given the floor to respond. In a minutes-long retort, he called Gowdy’s and his Republican allies’ allegations of bias and improper actions “deeply destructive.”
He said that his text messages critical of Trump shortly after the investigation began were in response to Trump’s behavior on the campaign trail — and not a reflection of his investigative intent. He pointed in particular to Trump’s attacks on the Khans, a Gold Star family who spoke at the Democratic National Convention around that time.
“My presumption [was] based on that horrible, disgusting behavior that the American population would not elect somebody demonstrating that behavior to be president of the United States,” he said.
Strzok concluded that the accusation against him and the line of questioning “deeply corrodes what the FBI is in American society, the effectiveness of their mission, and it is deeply destructive.” Some in the room applauded.
The transcript threat
One of the subplots here has been Democrats’ push to release the transcript of Strzok’s previous, closed-door testimony. They argue that it has been selectively leaked and described to impugn him.
So at one point early in the hearing, Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., said he intended to release the transcript himself. Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., stressed that it was the committee’s practice and that there was an agreement to keep closed-door hearings private while an investigation is ongoing.
Cicilline’s response: “We intend to release this transcript unless someone presents some rule that prevents us from doing it.”
Eventually Cicilline got some backup from GOP Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, who happens to be the head of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
It’s worth noting that Goodlatte’s justification — that the committee’s investigation is ongoing — was the same one Strzok offered for not answering questions about the special counsel’s Russia probe. In the latter case, apparently, Republicans don’t think it applies.
The Purple Heart promise
The difference between the lines of questioning between Republicans and Democrats was, as usual, stark. While Republicans badgered Strzok, Democrats mostly used their time to argue for the importance of the Mueller investigation.
But some Democrats decided to go further than that and to make Strzok a martyr — or even a hero. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., went the furthest. “Mr. Strzok, if I could give you a Purple Heart, I would,” Cohen said when he began his questioning.
The visual aids
During his opening statement, House Oversight Committee ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings of Maryland asserted that Republicans were trying to shut down a fruitful investigation. Gowdy recently asserted that Mueller should “finish it the hell up.” Cummings noted the guilty pleas Robert Mueller had obtained already, and he brought visual aids to drive home the point. “Let me underscore: These are not allegations, these are admissions,” Cummings said. Someone on the committee objected at one point, but the visual aids were allowed to stay.
Later on, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, displayed a similar visual, holding up former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s just-released mug shot.