A House Judiciary Committee hearing quickly spiraled into chaos on Thursday when FBI Deputy Assistant Director Peter Strzok said he couldn’t answer a question related to the Russia investigation because the FBI’s lawyers had instructed him not to, leading the committee’s chairman, Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., to threaten to hold Strzok in contempt.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., asked Strzok — whose anti-Trump text messages led to his removal from the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller — how many interviews he conducted in the first week of the probe.
“Congressman, as you know, counsel for the FBI, based on the special counsel’s equities, has instructed me not to answer questions about the ongoing investigation into Russian attempts to interfere,” Strzok replied.
Gowdy repeated his question and Strzok repeated his answer, infuriating Goodlatte.
“Mr. Strzok, you are under subpoena and are required to answer the question,” Goodlatte said. “Are you objecting to the question?”
Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., interjected.
“Mr. Chairman, I object,” Nadler said. “This demand puts Mr. Strzok in an impossible position. He is still an employee of the FBI, and FBI’s counsel has instructed him not to answer the gentleman’s question. If we have a problem with this policy we should take it up with the FBI, not badger Mr. Strzok.”
“The point of order is not taken,” Goodlatte said.
“It’s right on point,” Nadler replied.
“Are you just going to make up rules as we go along?” Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., asked Goodlatte.
'FBI Deputy Assistant Director Peter Strzok and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte spar during a hearing Thursday. (Photos: Evan Vucci/AP)
Strzok pointed out that he was not under subpoena and appearing before the committee voluntarily, which appeared to infuriate Goodlatte even more.
“You have not stated a valid, legal basis for not responding to a question directed to you by a member of the United States House of Representatives,” the chairman said, threatening to hold Strzok in contempt.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., countered the suggestion by noting that former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon had also refused to answer questions from the committee.
“Will the committee also consider contempt for Mr. Bannon?” Swalwell asked.
Goodlatte said Swalwell was out of order.
Democrats eventually forced a roll-call vote on a motion to overturn the chair’s decision not to recall Bannon for further testimony. Republicans ultimately prevailed, and the motion was defeated.
President Trump and his allies have repeatedly touted text messages between and Strzok and FBI attorney Lisa Page during the 2016 campaign as proof of bias by Mueller’s probe. Strzok said the disparaging comments were merely political commentary between colleagues during a remarkably heated election.
In one contentious exchange with Gowdy, Strzok said he didn’t “appreciate” the chairman’s interpretation of his text messages.
“I don’t give a damn what you appreciate,” Gowdy replied. “I don’t appreciate having an FBI agent with an unprecedented level of animus working on two major investigations in 2016.”
Strzok said one of the text messages — which read “we will stop it” — was an emotional response to Trump’s treatment of a Gold Star father on the campaign trail.
“That was written late at night, off the cuff,” Strzok told the panel. “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.”
In another tense exchange, Strzok said his texts in no way influenced the FBI’s investigation.
“I take great offense and I take great disagreement to your assertion,” Strzok told Gowdy. “Furthermore, this isn’t just me sitting here telling you — you don’t have to take my word for it. At every step, at every investigative decision, there were multiple layers of people above me — the assistant director, the deputy assistant director, deputy director and director of the FBI. And multiple layers of people below me — section chiefs, supervisors, unit chiefs, case agents and analysts — all of whom were involved in all of these decisions. They would not tolerate any improper behavior in me any more than I would tolerate it in them.”
“That is who we are as the FBI,” Strzok said. “And the suggestion that I in some dark chamber somewhere would somehow cast aside all of these procedures, all of these safeguards, and somehow be able to do this is astounding to me. It simply couldn’t happen.”