Peter Strzok appeared today before a joint session of the House Oversight and Judiciary committees. The event lived up to expectations in its contentiousness. Here are a few highlights, with commentary.
Immediately after the opening statements, Trey Gowdy, House Oversight Committee Chairman, asked Strzok how many people he interviewed during the first eight days of the FBI’s Russia investigation (between July 31 and Aug. 8, 2016). Strzok responded that he had been advised by the FBI’s lawyers not to address specifics of what is still an ongoing investigation — now the Mueller investigation.
Republicans promptly threatened to hold Strzok in contempt. Strzok then claimed he didn’t have to answer the question because, despite being subpoenaed by the committee, he had previously said he would speak voluntarily.
The notion that Strzok can avoid the requirements of subpoena because he said he would appear voluntarily seems flimsy, if not frivolous. In addition, it’s a stretch to say that merely providing the number of witnesses Strzok interviewed when the FBI was still running the Russia investigation in any way compromises the Mueller investigation.
However, if the FBI actually takes this position, then Strzok was right not to answer. And even if Congress holds Strzok in contempt, it may not be able to inflict any real pain on him without cooperation from the Department of Justice.
Congress’ remedy, if it wants Strzok to answer the question, is to persuade the Justice Department that it’s entitled to an answer. Unfortunately, as long as Rod Rosenstein is calling the shots on these matters, Congress isn’t likely to get far.
Another highlight occurred when Strzok was called on to explain his text to Lisa Page saying “we’ll stop” Donald Trump from being elected president. This was the exchange with Page:
[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!
No. No he won’t. We’ll stop it.
Strzok said he doesn’t remember writing the text. That’s plausible. He wrote so many anti-Trump texts to Page.
But later, Strzok testified that he wrote the text “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 [was] that the American population would not elect someone demonstrating that behavior to be president of the United States.” He thus tried shamelessly to wrap himself around a fallen war hero.
If Strzok doesn’t remember writing the text, how can he say with confidence what he meant at the time? That difficulty aside, Strzok’s claim that what he meant in saying “we’ll stop it” was that voters won’t elect Trump is ludicrous. No one would use that locution to express the view that the “American population” already dislikes Trump too much to elect him.
First, it would be highly unusual in this context to say “we” in referring to the electorate. Second, it would be highly unusual to say “stop” in referring merely to falling short at the voting booth. Strzok plainly is talking about some sort of action “we” will take, some intervention, not the passivity of hoping Americans will reject Trump based on information it already has.
In addition to wrapping himself around the fallen war hero, Strzok attempted to wrap himself around the FBI. He concluded a long oration on his own behalf by stating that the accusation that his anti-Trumpism affected his professional conduct “deeply corrodes what the FBI is in American society, the effectiveness of their mission, and it is deeply destructive.” Reportedly, some committee Democrats applauded.
But most organizations have bad apples. Their misconduct is corrosive. Holding them accountable is not; it’s restorative. That’s why the FBI recently escorted Strzok out of its building.
What’s highly corrosive is Democrats applauding a renegade FBI agent who tells tall tales to Congress and whom the agency itself seems ready to weed out.