An FBI agent who criticized Donald Trump in text messages during the 2016 campaign vigorously defended himself at a raucous congressional hearing on Thursday that highlighted the deep divisions over a probe of Russian election meddling that has clouded Trump's presidency.
As soon as the questions got underway, the hearing devolved into a partisan verbal brawl as House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte struggled to maintain control of the crowded hearing room, which contained more than 70 members between the House Judiciary and Oversight Committees. "This decision is long overdue".
Thursday's hearing, which was the first public appearance Strzok has made since he became a central figure in the Russian Federation investigation, underscored the deep tensions on Capitol Hill over the FBI's investigations connected to the 2016 election.
Strzok said under aggressive questioning that a much-discussed August 2016 text in which he vowed "we'll stop" a Trump candidacy followed Trump's denigration of the family of a dead USA service member.
"Peter Strzok's testimony was a disgrace", Rudy Giuliani, a lawyer for the president, said on Twitter.
Strzok replied that he was not under subpoena, but testifying voluntarily - and that he could not answer questions "related to the ongoing investigations being undertaken by the special counsel's office". "Aw, Mr. Chairman, this is outrageous", one Democrat complained. In it, Strzok describes his reluctance to work on behalf of the special counsel, and that seemed to imply he didn't think there would be substantial findings of collusion between Russian Federation and the Trump campaign team.
"At no time in any of these texts did those personal beliefs ever enter into the realm of any action I took", Strzok continued.
On Thursday, Strzok said the message was written late at night after Trump's campaign comments disparaging a slain USA soldier.
Democrats, however, agreed with the sentiment expressed by their colleague, California congressman Ted Lieu: "Let me start by saying, this is a stupid and ridiculous hearing". And particularly damaging was the fact that, according to unnamed USA officials, Strzok played a role in changing former FBI Director James Comey's wording regarding how she handled classified information from "gross negligence" to the noncriminal "extremely careless".
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said the congressional focus on the "internal workings of the special counsel's investigation" distracts from more critical questions about Russian meddling in the 2016 election and the need to protect future USA elections from foreign influence. Last year, he was reassigned from Mueller's team after the compromising texts emerged.
"It was in no way, unequivocally, any suggestion that me, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, would take any action whatsoever to improperly impact the electoral process for any candidate", he said. Multiple GOP lawmakers, including Goodlatte and Gowdy, pointed out that Page has known for more than six months that the committees wanted to interview her; they also argued that she had all the information she needed for an unclassified interview far earlier in the day Tuesday than her lawyer claimed. Page will attend a closed-door interview on Friday with the committees.
House Democrats accused Republicans of using Strzok to undermine special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's investigation.