An FBI agent who worked on separate investigations into Democrat Hillary Clinton and President Donald Trump's campaign testified behind closed doors to two House committees Wednesday as GOP lawmakers stepped up efforts to highlight what they say is bias at the Justice Department.
Peter Strzok exchanged anti-Trump texts with a colleague, FBI attorney Lisa Page, as both worked on the Clinton investigation and briefly on special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into ties between Trump's campaign and Russia. House Republicans have seized on the texts as part of investigations into the Justice Department, the FBI and decisions that both made during the 2016 presidential election.
In one of the texts, from August 2016, Strzok wrote, "We'll stop it," in reference to a potential Trump election win.
The barrage of GOP criticism against the Justice Department comes just a few months before the midterm elections, and amid intense sparring between the parties over the FBI's role in the Russia probe. The House could vote as soon as Thursday on a resolution demanding the department hand over thousands of documents that Congress has requested by July 6. The resolution was approved by the House Judiciary Committee.
Democrats have accused Republicans of trying to undermine Mueller's investigation for political gain.
President Donald Trump criticized the closed-door interview with Strzok, saying it should be "shown to the public on live television, not a closed door hearing that nobody will see."
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., has said there will also be a public hearing with Strzok. The Judiciary and House Oversight and Government Reform committees are conducting the investigation.
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A seasoned counterintelligence agent, Strzok had a leading role on the investigation into whether Clinton illegally mishandled classified information through her use of a private email server while secretary of state. He later joined Mueller's team investigating Russian election interference, but was reassigned last summer after the discovery of anti-Trump text messages he had traded with the FBI lawyer. Page had already left Mueller's team.
The Republicans' charges of bias were bolstered earlier this month by a report by the Justice Department's internal watchdog that faulted top department officials, including former FBI Director James Comey, for their handling of the probe of Clinton's emails. The report also detailed the communications by Strzok and others criticizing Trump.
While strongly criticizing the way the Clinton investigation was handled, the inspector general ultimately found no evidence that bias affected the decision not to bring charges against her.
Strzok was recently escorted from the FBI building as his disciplinary process winds through the system, his lawyer has said. He "remains a proud FBI agent" who wants to serve his country but has been the "target of unfounded personal attacks, political games and inappropriate information leaks," according to a statement last week from lawyer Aitan Goelman.
Rep. Mark Meadows, one of the most vocal critics of the Justice Department, said as he walked into the interview that he had several questions about the beginning of the Russia investigation in 2016 and informants used to question Trump campaign staff.
"Ultimately you cannot have bias within the FBI and DOJ and expect justice to be meted out evenly," Meadows said.
The Strzok interview is one of several events this week in which House Republicans are criticizing the Justice Department. At a contentious session Tuesday, the GOP-led Judiciary panel approved the resolution requesting the department provide documents, despite an existing agreement to do so that was announced by House Speaker Paul Ryan's office over the weekend.
Meadows, R-N.C., and Republican Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, two vocal critics of the Clinton investigation, were behind the resolution, which would not be enforceable but would send a strong message to Justice officials.
Justice and FBI have already turned over more than 800,000 documents to congressional committees, but subpoenas from the Justice and Intelligence panels are demanding additional materials. Lawmakers have threatened to hold top Justice officials in contempt or impeach them if the documents aren't turned over.
On Thursday, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein will appear at an open hearing to testify about both investigations and the documents Republicans are seeking. Goodlatte said he intends to use Thursday's hearing to question Wray and Rosenstein about complying with the requests and that he encouraged "others to do the same."
Democrats angrily fought the resolution approved Tuesday.
"What is really going on here is a bad-faith effort by the majority to interfere in an ongoing investigation," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel.
Ryan and some other Republican leaders have taken pains to disassociate the document requests from campaign politics or Mueller's probe, saying the House is conducting legitimate oversight.
But Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida put politics front and center at Tuesday's meeting, ticking off several political polls that have shown decreasing support for Mueller.
"And just as Hillary Clinton and the Democrats lost the election, you are losing this argument," Gaetz told Democrats on the panel who charged that Republicans were trying to interfere in Mueller's probe. If Republicans were doing so, Gaetz reasoned, "Why is it that my Democratic colleagues can't convince the American people of that point?"