The extreme political divide over the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections and any ties to the campaign of President Donald Trump boiled over in Congress on Thursday, as a top FBI official who led the initial Russia investigation battled with Republicans for nearly ten hours, with lawmakers repeatedly shouting and screaming at each other during a tense hearing by a pair of House committees.
“This investigation is not politically motivated,” said Special Agent Peter Strzok, who was booted off the probe of Special Counsel Robert Mueller after text messages emerged that showed Strzok expressing repeated negative views about President Trump, even as the FBI veteran led the Russia investigation.
“It is not a witch hunt, it is not a hoax,” Strzok said, parroting the complaints of President Trump about the Mueller probe of Russian interference in 2016.
Democrats labeled the hearing a “Russian political show trial,” as they repeatedly ran interference for Strzok, while Republicans sought to use Strzok’s explantaions and text messages to argue that the entire Russia investigation was poisoned by bias inside the FBI, repeatedly accusing Strzok of lying.
“I don’t believe you,” said Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) bluntly after one in a string of contentious question-and-answer sessions.
What did we learn from Thursday’s extensive hearing?
1. Some interesting tidbits about the investigation. For months, GOP lawmakers have pressed for answers from the FBI on how the Steele Dossier came into the possession of investigators, and what contacts there were between senior officials and Fusion GPS, the opposition research firm hired by Democrats to gather up dirt on President Trump. Under oath, Strzok denied ever being in contact with Glenn Simpson, who orchestrated the dossier. Strzok further said the Steele dossier was not the reason that the Russia investigation was started. Strzok said he never spoke to Nellie Ohr – who worked at Fusion GPS, and was the wife of FBI official Bruce Ohr. Strzok said he never got any documents from Bruce Ohr, but that Ohr did give documents – some believe funneled from his wife and Fusion GPS – to the FBI. That was in September, well after the investigation had started.
2. The “insurance policy” text. One of the texts that has drawn the sharpest Republican criticism is one where Strzok seems to describe the Russia investigation as an ‘insurance policy’ in case President Trump was elected. While GOP lawmakers weren’t swayed by his explanation – Strzok seemed to make the case that there was a divide within the FBI on how seriously to treat the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 elections, with one camp wanting to go slow on any investigation – convinced that Mr. Trump would not win in November. Strzok argued the opposite, saying the FBI should not ignore the issue, simply because the polls might have indicated that Hillary Clinton was going to win the election. Strzok also said the source which spurred the investigation was extremely sensitive, and there was concern about endangering that source.
3. Why didn’t Strzok leak the Russia probe in 2016? If we take at face value that Peter Strzok does not like President Trump – and he fully admitted to that during his testimony – then one must question why he did not take the next logical step during the 2016 election campaign, and leak the existence of the Russia investigation. “This information had the potential to derail and quite possibly defeat Trump, but the thought of expressing that, or exposing that information never crossed my mind,” Strzok told lawmakers, as he staunchly defended the Russia probe, saying it was not a ‘witch hunt.’ The investigation began in late July of 2016 – but the public didn’t find out about that probe until after the President was in office. In this video, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) is asking Strzok why he didn’t use the ‘magical bullet’ to publicize the investigation of the Trump Campaign – before the elections, as Democrats again complained that James Comey talked about Hillary Clinton’s emails before the elections, but no one said anything about the Russia investigation.
4. Strzok did not wilt in the witness chair. For someone who has been pilloried in public for months, and who is not a public official with experience in testifying in front of the Congress, Peter Strzok more than held his own in a hearing that stretched for almost ten hours, as he stood in the batters box and took high heat from Republican after Republican on a pair of House panels – but never seemed to be knocked off stride. At one point, the Judiciary Chairman stopped letting him respond to GOP lawmakers, as Republicans routinely cut off his answers. Strzok also didn’t try to hide his feelings about President Trump. “You don’t like Donald Trump, do you?” Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-TN) asked at one point. “Fair to say, I’m not a fan, sir,” Strzok responded.
5. Republicans threaten Strzok with Contempt of Congress. The hearing began on an somewhat extraordinary note, as Strzok refused to answer a question from Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) about details of the Russia investigation, saying that FBI Counsel had instructed him – remember, he is still an employee of the FBI – not to give any details about the ongoing investigation into the Trump-Russia probe. When Strzok refused, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte immediately threatened to hold Strzok in Contempt of Congress – but when the hearing ended, Goodlatte said nothing about that threat, even as Republicans groused about the lack of answers about the origins of the Russia investigation.
6. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) goes there on Strzok’s affair. Maybe the most explosive moment of the entire day came during questioning by Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), who accused Strzok of lying to lawmakers and then asked if he also lied like that to his wife, referencing Strzok’s affair with former FBI lawyer Lisa Page. It prompted a giant outburst from Democrats, with one yelling at Gohmert, “You need your medication.” It was one of many tumultuous moments in the hearing, which took on the atmosphere of a political carnival at times, as Republicans verbally barbecued Strzok, and Democrats did their best to deflect the attacks, and turn them back on the GOP.
7. Democrats rattle off Trump criticism from Republicans. In their effort to defend Strzok, several Democratic lawmakers read off critical statements about President Trump which were made by fellow GOP lawmakers in Congress – to make the point that it wasn’t just Peter Strzok and Lisa Page who were exchanging horrified texts about the possibility that Mr. Trump might win in 2016. I’m not sure how effective it was in terms of a strategy, but it was a reminder that a lot of Republicans along the way didn’t have nice things to say about the President – along with some people inside the FBI. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) read one nasty line after another about Mr. Trump from GOP lawmakers.
8. This was not the finest ten hours of Congress. I’ve seen a lot of hearings in my over 30 years of covering Capitol Hill. This one was a doozy. It had everything. Lawmakers interrupting the witness. Lawmakers interrupting each other. Parliamentary rulings that seemed a bit thin on substance. Yelling. Screaming. Shouting. Personal attacks. “I’m sure there may have been worse hearings but today was really embarrassing,” a retired colleague of mine emailed me after the hearing was over. More than anything, the hearing showcased the bitter partisan battle over the Russia investigation, which continues on in the hands of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Meanwhile, lawmakers in the Congress will evidently keep doing what Congress does best these days – fighting with each other.