Former FBI official Peter Strzok has now sat for 21 hours of congressional testimony, 11 in private and 10 in public.
Thursday’s public joint hearing before the House Judiciary and Oversight Committees yielded in-depth textual analyses of the anti-Trump text messages that Strzok exchanged with his former lover and colleague at the FBI, Lisa Page. There were theatrics aplenty, including a Republican threat to hold Strzok in contempt of Congress. The word “douche” was entered into the congressional record.
One lowlight was Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) asking Strzok “how many times did you look so innocent into your wife’s eye and lie to her.” A Democratic lawmaker interrupted to shout that Gohmert needed his “medication.”
Former FBI officials told TPM that they were dismayed by the marathon pile-on. All of the finger-pointing, props, and raised voices, they said, exemplified the reckless norm-busting and erosion of the rule of law in the Trump era.
“I can’t believe what I’m seeing,” former FBI special agent Mark Pollitt told TPM in a phone interview.
“To me it was just a very sad demonstration of political theater that’s entirely designed to create sound-bites for the press,” Pollitt continued.
“It’s a show,” concurred Clint Watts, a former FBI counterterrorism agent. “I call it investigation theater.”
Things got wild almost immediately after Strzok entered the hearing room Thursday morning and took his seat to answer questions before lawmakers and TV cameras.
In the first minutes, Strzok refused to answer a question from House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) about the number of people he interviewed for the Russia probe in the first week of the investigation. Strzok said that he was following Justice Department policy, which prohibits FBI personnel from publicly discussing ongoing investigations.
But House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) promptly threatened to hold him in contempt of Congress, sparking cries of protest from Democrats on the committees and former FBI personnel.
“How dare they claim to be all for law and protecting secrets whilst at the same violating the law by demanding that an FBI agent break the law?” former FBI agent Mark Rossini asked in an email to TPM. “This is just another attempt to diminish the FBI.”
The hearing then devolved into the familiar rehashing of the text messages. Republicans pointed to Strzok’s words to ask how he could claim not to be biased, while Democrats asked rhetorical questions about whether anything he said to Page altered the material facts of the Russia investigation, which have yielded some two dozen indictments.
Strzok appeared unruffled by the drama, shifting in his seat and smirking occasionally at lawmakers’ lines of questioning. Former FBI officials commended him for keeping calm under pressure.
“I think Strzok did an amazing job of articulating his personal beliefs and how they’re separate from his professional conduct,” Pollitt told TPM. “Not that it’s going to make any difference to anybody but at the end of the day I think he explained it pretty well, and the fact that he was able to do it in a forceful way without getting upset made him look pretty professional.”
“By remaining calm, exhibiting passion only when required, & explaining himself in the face of tough questioning, Strzok looks like the normal one when compared to congressional posturing,” former FBI agent Josh Campbell chimed in on Twitter.
Each sides’ arguments have been exhaustively churned over since the existence of the Strzok-Page texts were first reported late last year. Since both Page and Strzok worked on both the Hillary Clinton email investigation and the probe into Russia’s election interference, the anti-Trump messages were proof, they said, that the entire Russia investigation was a biased effort to take down the Republican nominee.
Democrats acknowledged that the messages—which include Strzok calling Trump an “idiot” and saying “we’ll stop” him—were unprofessional and unfortunate. But they’ve countered that there is no evidence that the two FBI officials’ private thoughts impacted their work on the investigation. A months-long DOJ inspector general report concluded as much, Democrats are quick to note, and both Page and Strzok were removed from special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe as soon as their exchanges were discovered.
Above all, as Democrats have argued in hearing after hearing, fixating on the text messages of two former FBI officials is a distraction from Russia’s concerted attempts to meddle with the 2016 U.S. election, which the CIA, FBI, NSA and Senate Intelligence Committee have all concluded occurred.
“I think the most important point was Strzok’s final point in his opening statement, which is that this is a home run for Russia because we’re continuing to fight each other,” Watts said. “In doing so we’re weakening democratic institutions and elected officials, and that’s the real goal of this influence campaign after all. It’s still working, three years later.”
Those former officials noted that the hours of testimony yielded almost no new information.
As Pollitt put it, Thursday’s hearing “didn’t add anything to what we already knew.”
Watts suggested that the charade may “backfire on Republicans,” who long pressed for Strzok to appear in public session.
“They’re dragging him there to bully him but he is now getting an opportunity, like you saw with Rod Rosenstein two weeks ago, to fire back,” he continued, saying GOP lawmakers ended up looking “silly” at both hearings.
But as Watts pointed out, few voters would probably watch the hearings. Of those that did, Republicans and Democrats would likely only see clips favorable to their parties’ narrative.
“Both sides will get what they want,” he said, “but collectively, for the country, it’s a giant waste of time.”