July 12 (UPI) — Peter Strzok, an FBI deputy under scrutiny for exchanging text messages with a bureau attorney critical of President Donald Trump, told lawmakers at his first public hearing Thursday that grilling him on the issue only helps Russia’s campaign against the United States.
The House Committees on the Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform held the hearing to ask Strzok about the anti-Trump messages and his work on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian electoral interference.
As an investigator on Mueller’s team, he helped look for ties between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, as well as examining the scandal over Hillary Clinton’s private email use when she was secretary of state.
At Thursday’s fiery hearing, Strzok was confronted by House lawmakers about his messages, which expressed displeasure at Trump’s election in November 2016. Once the messages were found, Strzok was reassigned by Mueller to human resources duties.
Strzok has testified before lawmakers before, but in closed sessions. Thursday’s was his first public hearing.
Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte asked Strzok if he felt concerned enough about the text messages to remove himself from the investigation, to which the administrator answered, “no.”
Democrats loudly objected to Goodlatte’s attempts to force Strzok to answer a question from agitated House Oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy, who asked about how many witnesses were interviewed knowing he could not comment on an ongoing investigation.
After Gowdy said Strzok’s was a “textbook” case of political bias, the FBI deputy countered by saying the entire scandal was motivated by bad optics.
“It is not my understanding that [Mueller] kicked me off because of any bias — that it was done based on the appearance,” Strzok said. “If you want to represent what you said accurately I am happy to answer that question, but I don’t appreciate what was originally said being changed.”
“I don’t give a damn what you appreciate,” Gowdy fired back. “I don’t appreciate having an FBI agent with an unprecedented level of animus working on two major investigations during 2016.”
Of particular concern to the committees was a text message from Strzok to Page pledging to “stop” Trump. The agent explained it by saying it was a natural, personal reaction — not a promise that he or anyone in the FBI would do anything to interfere.
“My presumption — based on [Trump’s] horrible, disgusting behavior — that the American population would not elect somebody demonstrating that behavior to be president of the United States … was in no way, unequivocally, any suggestion that me, the FBI, would take any action whatsoever to improperly impact the electoral process, for any candidate,” Strzok said.
Strzok noted that most government workers have political opinions, but do not allow them to interfere with their responsibilities.
Goodlatte went on to compare Strzok’s messages to prohibited speech against racial bias by jurors at legal trials.
“I think your mixing apples and oranges,” Strzok said. “Protected matters that we may not, the government may not and people may not discriminate against . .. That is entirely separate and distinct from political belief or political opinion that on the other hand is protected under the First Amendment.”
Still, Goodlatte said the messages criticized Trump in “a very biased, salacious manner” and were “totally inappropriate.”
Strzok argued to lawmakers his very presence on Capitol Hill Thursday was a good help to the Russians.
“Russian interference in our elections constitutes a grave attack on our democracy,” Strzok told lawmakers in his prepared opening statement.
“Most disturbingly, it has been wildly successful — sowing discord in our nation and shaking faith in our institutions. I have the utmost respect for Congress’s oversight role, but I truly believe that today’s hearing is just another victory notch in [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s belt and another milestone in our enemies’ campaign to tear America apart.”
The statement could further agitate both House committees, which have already strongly condemned his actions and messages with FBI attorney Lisa Page as having a clear political bias.