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 to two House committees Wednesday as 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 expected to vote Thursday on a resolution demanding the department hand over thousands of documents that Congress has requested by July 6. The resolution was approved by the House Judiciary Committee.
Democrats have accused Republicans of trying to undermine Mueller’s investigation for political gain.
Strzok’s questioning was still going Wednesday evening, nine hours after it had started and showed no signs of ending. Lawmakers were still expected to take Strzok into a classified session Wednesday to ask the most sensitive questions.
The interview also showed no signs of changing entrenched opinions — Republicans leaving for breaks 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 House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, 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.
“I do believe this is an attempt to shine some negative light on what special counsel Mueller is doing,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Oversight panel. “At the rate we’re going we’ll be investigating this stuff for the next five or 10 years.”
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 and has now left the agency.
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., has said there will also be a public hearing “soon.” The Judiciary and Oversight committees are conducting the investigation.
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 the 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.”
Democrats angrily fought the resolution approved Tuesday.
“What is really going on here is a bad-faith effort by the majority to interfere in an ongoing investigation,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel.
Ryan and some other Republican leaders have taken pains to disassociate the document requests from campaign politics or Mueller’s probe, saying the House is conducting legitimate oversight.
But Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida put politics front and center at Tuesday’s meeting, ticking off several political polls that have shown decreasing support for Mueller.
“And just as Hillary Clinton and the Democrats lost the election, you are losing this argument,” Gaetz told Democrats on the panel who charged that Republicans were trying to interfere in Mueller’s probe. If Republicans were doing so, Gaetz reasoned, “Why is it that my Democratic colleagues can’t convince the American people of that point?”