WASHINGTON — Republicans sparred with FBI agent Peter Strzok from the very first question at a hearing Thursday over politically charged investigations, threatening him with a contempt citation for refusing, at the direction of an FBI lawyer, to answer questions about the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Strzok, who was the lead agent on FBI probes into Hillary Clinton and the Trump campaign and is now the subject of an internal misconduct probe, was asked by Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, how many individuals he interviewed in the first week of the Russia probe in the summer of 2016.
"I will not, based on direction of the FBI ... answer that question, because it goes to matters which are related to the ongoing investigations being undertaken by the special counsel's office," Strzok replied, at a joint hearing of the Judiciary and Oversight committees.
At that point, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, interjected, threatening Strzok with a contempt citation if he did not answer the question.
"Mr. Strzok, you are under subpoena, and are required to answer the question," Goodlatte said.
Democrats immediately challenged Goodlatte, accusing him of treating Strzok unfairly and seeking unsuccessfully to adjourn the hearing.
In opening the hearing, Goodlatte said Strzok and other senior FBI officials "turned our system of justice on its head, and that's why we're here, and why this matters."
The ranking Democrat on the panel, Jerrold Nadler of New York, urged Republicans not to use the Strzok hearing to attack special counsel Robert Mueller.
"I know that the majority wants a fight with Mr. Strzok today," Nadler said. "Leave the special counsel alone to do his job."
Strzok's appearance at a joint hearing of the Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees was highly charged from the very first question, as he faced off against GOP lawmakers who have long denounced his conduct.
Strzok, a deputy assistant director at the FBI who oversaw counterintelligence cases, was removed from the Trump probe by Mueller in July 2017. At that time, investigators for the Justice Department inspector general discovered text messages between him and then-FBI lawyer Lisa Page in which they repeatedly disparaged Trump and expressed a strong desire that he not win the election.
Strzok's work at the FBI became the subject of intense political battles in Congress after The Washington Post reported in December he and Page, who had been involved in a romantic relationship, were under investigation by the inspector general over their texts. Page left the FBI earlier this year; Strzok is the focus of an internal investigation that could lead to his firing, but he is still technically an employee of the bureau.
"I testify today with significant regret, recognizing that my texts have created confusion and caused pain for people I love," Strzok said. "Certain private messages of mine have provided ammunition for misguided attacks against the FBI, an institution I love deeply and have served proudly for more than 20 years."
Strzok denied his political opinions influenced the investigations.
"Not once in my 26 years of defending my nation did my personal opinions impact any official action I took," Strzok said. "There is simply no evidence of bias in my professional actions."
Strzok also said Thursday's hearing is "is just another victory notch in [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's belt and another milestone in our enemies' campaign to tear America apart," calling it "profoundly painful to watch and even worse to play a part in."
In one 2016 text exchange, Page wrote: "He's not ever going to become president, right? Right?!" - to which Strzok answered, "No. No he won't. We'll stop it."
The inspector general found no evidence that investigative decisions were affected by the political bias of Page, Strzok or others at the FBI, but issued a report that was nevertheless harshly critical of their conduct, saying the texts exhibited a willingness to take official action to prevent Trump from becoming president.
Strzok has already spoken at length to the House Judiciary Committee behind closed doors; Democrats have demanded - without success - that the Republican-controlled committee release the transcripts.
On Wednesday, House Republicans signaled they may try to hold Page in contempt of Congress unless she agrees to testify by Friday about her role in the FBI's probes.
Page served as the chief legal adviser to the FBI's then-deputy director, Andrew McCabe.
Page and Strzok were both part of a small group of senior FBI officials who handled both the Clinton and Trump probes. Within the FBI, those officials were often referred to as the "skinny group" because then-FBI Director James Comey and others sought to keep a tight grip on details of those investigations.
Trump's supporters in Congress have accused Strzok and Page of steering the Clinton probe away from criminal charges and pushing the FBI to aggressively investigate Trump advisers through electronic surveillance and confidential informants. They accuse FBI leadership of making investigative decisions for political reasons and have long sought to question Strzok and other FBI officials about how those cases were handled.
Trump has repeatedly belittled Strzok publicly. On Saturday, the president tweeted: "The Rigged Witch Hunt, originally headed by FBI lover boy Peter S (for one year) & now, 13 Angry Democrats ... It's a Democrat Con Job!"
Officials said Friday the committees had reached an agreement to question her behind closed doors on Friday, following an angry back and forth with Page's lawyer Amy Jeffress over what she called "bullying tactics" by the lawmakers.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., charged that Page had made it "very difficult to even serve her with a subpoena."
"The idea that she was willing to come voluntarily and this is all about document review that she's had the ability to review for seven months — many of which she wrote, by the way — it just does not hold water," Meadows said, complaining that a U.S. marshal had to deliver Page the subpoena early in the morning.