Beneath the partisan posturing and fiery monologues, a House hearing Thursday on FBI agent Peter Strzok’s conduct delved into some key factual questions.
In a hearing jointly conducted by the Oversight and Judiciary committees, Republican lawmakers sharply questioned the embattled agent who oversaw the Hillary Clinton email server investigation as well as the beginning of the investigation into Russian meddling in the election, while Democrats defended him and criticized their GOP colleagues.
It was the first chance that Strzok has had to publicly respond to criticism of his work, both from the Justice Department’s inspector general, who looked into texts that Strzok sent to a colleague he was having an affair with, and from President Donald Trump, who has attempted to use those texts to discredit the Russia investigation.
The hearing became particularly heated at points, with Republicans threatening to hold Strzok in contempt for refusing to answer a question about the ongoing investigation due to FBI policy; Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert criticizing Strzok in starkly personal terms, wondering “how many times did you look innocently into your wife’s eyes and lie to her about” his affair; and Strzok arguing that he sent one controversial text because he was upset by Trump’s “unconscionable and disgusting and cruel” treatment of the parents of fallen soldier Humayun Khan.
But there were also several moments in the hearing in which Strzok and lawmakers discussed substantive questions about the two key investigations into Clinton and Trump.
Here’s a closer look at three moments in the hearing that mattered.
How Clinton’s use of a private server went from ‘negligent’ to ‘careless’
Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner grilled Strzok about how the wording of a statement criticizing Clinton for her use of a private email server was changed before it was issued.
What we know: In July 2016, Strzok, who was leading the F.B.I.’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, rephrased his description of Clinton’s decisions from “grossly negligent” to “extremely careless” in a draft of a statement to be issued publicly by James Comey, who then headed the F.B.I.
How Strzok responded: He argued that the revision was introduced by the F.B.I.’s internal legal counsel, who noted that the phrase “gross negligence” carried a specific legal meaning and would carry legal implications.
Key moment: Sensenbrenner asked Strzok to confirm that the revision to the draft was made on Strzok’s computer on June 6; Strzok said he “believe[d] it to be true.”
“Why was the change made?” Sensenbrenner asked.
“My recollection is — and I’m not an attorney — that attorneys within the F.B.I. raised concern that the use of ‘gross negligence’ triggered a very specific legal meaning.”
“Yeah — criminal!” Sensenbrenner said. He then asked if the change was “Hillary’s ‘get out of jail free card.’”
“Absolutely not, sir,” Strzok replied. He then expounded on the F.B.I.’s desire to avoid using a term with specific legal implications.
“With regard to that decision, there was concern within the perspective of a legal definition of that term that people would draw an inference based on that use that it was necessarily talking a specific subset of a statute,” he said.
“That rates four Pinnochios,” Sensenbrenner replied.
Why he was removed from Mueller’s investigation
Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy questioned Strzok about his removal from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling, which occurred after the inspector general began looking into his texts.
What we know: Strzok was removed from Mueller’s team last summer after an internal investigation uncovered his text exchanges with Page, which criticized then-candidate Trump. Peter Carr, a spokesperson for the special counsel’s office, said “immediately upon learning of the allegations, the Special Counsel’s Office removed Peter Strzok from the investigation.” Although people speculated about why Strzok was dismissed, Mueller’s team never publicly gave an official reason. Strzok was then abruptly reassigned to a position at the FBI’s human resources division.
How did Strzok respond: Strzok claimed that, to his knowledge, he was removed from the probe for reasons related to public perception — presumably to maintain trust in the integrity of Mueller’s team — rather than any concern about bias on his part.
Key Moment: Gowdy asked Strzok to explain the timing behind his dismissal from the investigation team. “No wonder Bob Mueller kicked you off of the investigation, Agent Strzok. My question is, if you were kicked off when he read the texts, shouldn’t you have been kicked off when you wrote them?”
“No, not at all,” Strzok responded. Gowdy questioned why he was kicked off, and Strzok explained that he was removed “based on the understanding of those texts and the perception that they might create…”
Strzok testified that the meeting was short, somewhere around 15 minutes.
When further questioned by Gowdy, he reiterated that “it is not my understanding that he kicked me off because of any bias. That it was done based on the appearance. If you want to represent what you said accurately, I’m happy to answer that question. But I don’t appreciate what was originally said being changed.”
Gowdy responded, “I don’t give a damn what you appreciate, Agent Strzok. I don’t appreciate having an FBI Agent with an unprecedented level of animus working on two major investigations during 2016.”
What Strzok meant when he said Trump wouldn’t become president
Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy questioned Strzok over perhaps the most controversial text that he sent Page, in which he said that Trump would not become president because “we’ll stop it.”
What we know: In the summer of 2016, Page sent a text to Strzok, writing “[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!” Strzok responded, No. No he won’t. We’ll stop it.” The inspector general’s report reviewing Clinton’s email investigation found that the texts damaged the FBI’s reputation for impartiality, but ultimately concluded there was no evidence that this affected the investigations.
Speaking publicly about the text during the hearing, Strzok explained that it was sent the night that Trump disparaged Khizr Khan, a Gold Star father who lost his son in Iraq, and that it was “off the cuff” comment sent late at night that he didn’t even recall. He gave an impassioned defense, arguing that his beliefs never impeded the investigation into Russian meddling because his FBI colleagues wouldn’t have allowed it.
Key moment: Strzok gave a long explanation for the text:
“Sir, I think it’s important, when you look at those texts that you understand the context in which they were made and the things that were going on across America.
“In terms of the texts that — we will stop it, you need to understand that that was written late at night, off the cuff, and it was in response to a series of events that included then candidate Trump insulting the immigrant family of a fallen war hero.
“And my presumption based on that horrible, disgusting behavior, that the American population would not elect somebody demonstrating that behavior to be President of the United States.
“It was in no way, unequivocally, any suggestion that me, the FBI, would take any action, whatsoever, to improperly impact the electoral process for any candidate. So, I — I take great offense and I take great disagreement to your assertion of what that was or wasn’t. As to the 100 million to one, that was clearly a statement made in jest and using hyperbole.
“I, of course, recognize that millions of Americans were likely to vote for candidate Trump. I acknowledge that is absolutely their right. That is what makes our democracy such a vibrant process that it is.
“But to suggest, somehow, that we can parse down the words of shorthand textual conversation like they’re some contract for a car is — is, simply, not consistent with my or most people’s use of text messaging.”