Embattled FBI agent Peter Strzok, who has become the target of Republican anger over his anti-Trump text messages, appeared before Congress on Thursday, mounting a forceful defense of his actions during the bureau’s investigations of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's emails.
Strzok, who led the FBI’s 2016 investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server and later worked on the special counsel’s investigation of Russian interference, told a House hearing that the text messages he exchanged with FBI lawyer Lisa Page reflected his personal opinions and that he never let his beliefs interfere with his work for the bureau.
"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," Strzok told a joint hearing by the House Judiciary and Government Oversight committees.
"I separated out my personal beliefs from any action I took as an FBI agent, every day," he added.
WATCH: FBI Official Denies Any Political Bias in His Official Work
Strzok’s first public testimony got off to a tense start and quickly degenerated into chaos after he declined to answer questions about the Russia investigation, leading the chairman of the judiciary panel, Bob Goodlatte, to threaten holding him in contempt of Congress.
The day-long testimony was marked by frequent shouting matches and an unprecedented display of bitter partisanship, with Republicans casting Strzok as a rogue agent out to get Trump, and Democrats describing the hearing as a show trial of a dedicated public servant designed to discredit the FBI and undermine special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
Democratic Representative Gerry Connolly of Virginia said the hearing was “a new low for the United States Congress. What a shame."
But Goodlatte, a close Trump ally in Congress, defended holding the session as part of the committee’s investigation of how the FBI and the Justice Department launched its probe into Russian interference.
“Please stop saying this doesn’t matter and is only the product of conspiracy theory,” he said. “Instead, 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, until last year the FBI’s No. 2 counterintelligence official, was among a small group of investigators Mueller assembled last May to head up the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election and allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow.
He was removed from the Russia investigation after Mueller learned about the text messages. Strzok said he was kicked off the team not because of any “bias” but “based on the appearance” of potential bias created by his text messages.
The Justice Department’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, last month released a report about the FBI’s handling of the Clinton email investigation, criticizing Strzok and Page for exchanging text messages that “potentially indicated or created the appearance that investigative decisions were impacted by bias or improper considerations.”
Strzok and Page were romantically involved at the time. In one text message uncovered by the inspector general, Strzok wrote to Page, “No. No, he won’t. We’ll stop it,” in response to Page’s question: “[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!”
The inspector general wrote that Strzok’s response “is not only indicative of a biased state of mind but even more seriously, implies a willingness to take official action to impact the presidential candidate's electoral prospects."
Pressed about the text message, Strzok said he did not recall writing it but that it was an off-the-cuff comment made “late at night” in reaction to then-candidate Trump’s denigration of the family of a U.S. service member killed in Iraq.
Strzok acknowledged that some of his messages reflected a "poor choice of words," but he dismissed Republican suggestions that his text message suggested "plan of action" to stop Trump from becoming president.
“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,” he said.
Trump has seized on Strzok and Page's texts to denounce the Mueller probe as nothing more than a "rigged witch hunt."
How can the Rigged Witch Hunt proceed when it was started, influenced and worked on, for an extended period of time, by former FBI Agent/Lover Peter Strzok? Read his hate filled and totally biased Emails and the answer is clear!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 11, 2018
Strzok said he was one of a "handful" of people at the FBI with knowledge of the Russian interference probe in the 2016 presidential election, and yet he declined to disclose it.
"This information had the potential to derail, and quite possibly, defeat Mr. Trump," he said. "But the thought of exposing that information never crossed my mind."
Page, who was recently subpoenaed to testify, has agreed to appear before the committees on Friday and Monday, Goodlatte’s office announced.
Trump lashed out directly at Page in another Twitter post Thursday from Brussels:
As I head out to a very important NATO meeting, I see that FBI Lover/Agent Lisa Page is dodging a Subpoena & is refusing to show up and testify. What can she possibly say about her statements and lies. So much corruption on the other side. Where is the Attorney General? @FoxNews— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 12, 2018