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WASHINGTON — The senior FBI official who oversaw the Hillary Clinton email investigation and helped lead the initial probe of ties between Russia and the Trump campaign strongly rejected claims that his personal views affected his official actions, while accusing congressional Republicans during a fiery and combative hearing of furthering Vladimir Putin’s goal of sowing discord in the U.S.
In public testimony before two House committees Thursday, special agent Peter Strzok acknowledged making “blunt” comments about then-candidate Donald Trump as well as other political figures in dozens of text messages he exchanged with a fellow agency official.
But he said they had been mischaracterized and did not in any way reflect on decisions he and other investigators made during their politically sensitive inquiries before the 2016 election.
“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,” he said at the start of what was likely to be a marathon day of testimony.
Significantly, Strzok noted that he was one of a small number of people who knew that the FBI had launched a counterintelligence investigation in July 2016, one that looked into whether any Trump campaign officials were working with the Kremlin to undermine Clinton’s campaign.
“This information had the potential to derail, and quite possibly, defeat Mr. Trump. But the thought of exposing that information never crossed my mind,” he said.
Strzok made clear at the start of questioning that he would be unable to answer many questions from lawmakers if they relate to the ongoing Russia probe. That immediately triggered fierce bickering among Republicans and Democrats about whether that was a valid justification, with the committees' GOP leaders raising the possibility of holding Strzok in contempt of Congress.
The more than 40,000 texts exchanged between Strzok and FBI counsel Lisa Page, with whom he was engaged in an extramarital affair, have been held up by Republicans as a prime example of political bias that infected the Justice Department and reflected animus against the Republican candidate. Trump has often tweeted about Strzok and Page as an example of what he has called a “witch hunt” against him.
In one example, Page wrote to Strzok in August of 2016: “[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!” Strzok replied: “No. No he’s not. We’ll stop it.”
In his opening statement, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., accused Strzok of “turn[ing] our system of justice on its head.”
“For those who think we are wasting time in this committee, suppose all of this had been said about candidate Obama before he was elected, or even more topical, about Hillary Clinton while she was running in the same election,” he said. “The American people hope you will understand that this investigation goes to the very heart of our system of justice, one that is supposed to be fair and treat everyone equally under the law.”
Strzok already appeared in June for a closed, 11-hour interview with the same congressional committees. In his opening statement Thursday, Strzok vowed to cooperate as much as possible with the inquiry but also decried what he called a “political era in which insults and insinuation often drown out honesty and integrity.”
“I have the utmost respect for Congress’s oversight role, but I truly believe that today’s hearing is just another victory notch in Putin’s belt and another milestone in our enemies’ campaign to tear America apart,” he said.
The Strzok-Page messages were uncovered as part of an investigation by the Justice Department watchdog into how the FBI handled the Clinton email probe. In an extensive report released last month, FBI Inspector General Michael Horowitz wrote that he was “deeply troubled” by the messages, which “potentially indicated or created the appearance that investigative decisions were impacted by bias or improper considerations.”
“Although we found no documentary or testimonial evidence directly connecting the political views these employees expressed in their text messages and instant messages to the specific [Clinton email] investigative decisions we reviewed … the messages cast a cloud over the FBI investigations to which these employees were assigned,” he concluded.
Strzok was removed as a member of special counsel Robert Mueller’s team one day after Horowitz team disclosed to him the existence of Strzok’s anti-Trump texts.
Page, who initially defied a subpoena from the House Judiciary and Oversight Committees to appear for a closed interview Wednesday, is now expected to appear before lawmakers on Friday.