Embattled FBI official Peter Strzok appeared before Congress on Thursday, rejecting Republican criticisms that a series of text messages he exchanged with FBI lawyer Lisa Page during the 2016 presidential campaign were evidence of bias against President Donald Trump.
Strzok, a deputy assistant FBI director who led the bureau’s 2016 investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and briefly worked on the Russia investigation team, testified he never let his personal views interfere with his work for the bureau.
“Let me be clear, unequivocally and under oath: Not once in my 26 years of defending my nation did my personal opinions impact any official action I took,” Strzok told a joint hearing by the House judiciary and government oversight committees.
Strzok’s first public testimony came after he met behind closed doors with members of the two panels for nearly 11 hours last month.
The session got off to a tense start after Strzok declined to answer questions about the Russia investigation, leading the chairman of the judiciary panel, Bob Goodlatte, to threaten holding him in contempt of Congress. Democrats on the panel interjected, accusing Republicans of harassing Strzok.
Strzok, a 22-year FBI counterintelligence veteran who also served in the Army for four years, headed the bureau’s Clinton email investigation and briefly worked on the Russia election interference investigation team led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Strzok was removed from the team, however, after the disclosure of his text messages.
The Justice Department’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, last month released a report about the FBI’s handling of the Clinton email investigation, criticizing Strzok and Page for exchanging text messages that “potentially indicated or created the appearance that investigative decisions were impacted by bias or improper considerations.”
Strzok and Page were romantically involved at the time. In one text message uncovered by the inspector general, Strzok wrote to Page, “No. No, he won’t. We’ll stop it,” in response to Page’s question “[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!”
The inspector general wrote that Strzok’s response “is not only indicative of a biased state of mind but, even more seriously, implies a willingness to take official action to impact the presidential candidate’s electoral prospects.”
Pressed about the text message, Strzok explained that he sent the message late at night out of revulsion at then-candidate Trump’s denigration of the family of a U.S. service member killed in Iraq. The text, he said, reflected his personal view of the “horrible, disgusting behavior” of the candidate.
Trump has seized on Strzok and Page’s texts to denounce the Mueller probe as nothing more than a “rigged witch hunt.”
Strzok said he was removed from the Russia investigation team and reassigned to the FBI’s human resources department not because of his anti-Trump “bias” but because Mueller was concerned about the “appearance of potential bias” created by the text messages.
Strzok said he was one of a “handful” of people at the FBI with knowledge of the Russian interference probe in the 2016 presidential election and yet he declined to disclose it.
“This information had the potential to derail, and quite possibly, defeat Mr. Trump,” he said. “But the thought of exposing that information never crossed my mind.”
Page, who recently was subpoenaed to testify, has agreed to appear before the committees on Friday and Monday, Goodlatte’s office announced.
Trump lashed out directly at Page in a Twitter post Thursday from Brussels.