Peter Strzok testifies Thursday at a House hearing on FBI and Department of Justice actions surrounding the 2016 election, at which FBI agent Peter Strzok testified publicly for the first time. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo
July 12 (UPI) -- FBI deputy director Peter Strzok, once a part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, became embroiled in a lengthy and fiery exchange with House lawmakers Thursday over text messages he sent two years ago that were heavily critical of President Donald Trump.
The House Committees on the Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform held the hearing to ask Strzok about the messages and his work on Mueller's team, which is seeking the existence of any possible collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign in 2016.
As an investigator, Strzok also examined the scandal over Hillary Clinton's private email use when she was secretary of state, an issue that dogged her White House bid.
Thursday's hearing quickly turned terse when Strzok was confronted by lawmakers about the messages, which expressed displeasure at Trump's election in November 2016. He was reassigned by Mueller to human resources duties after the texts were uncovered.
Strzok has testified before on Capitol Hill, but in closed sessions. Thursday's was his first public hearing.
Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., asked Strzok if he felt concerned enough about the contents of his messages to remove himself from the investigation, to which the agent answered, "no."
Democrats loudly objected to Goodlatte's attempts to force Strzok to answer a question from agitated House Oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who asked whether interviewed witnesses knew there was a conflict of interest.
Gowdy said Strzok's was a "textbook" case of political bias, but the agent countered by saying the entire scandal was motivated instead by bad optics.
"It is not my understanding that [Mueller] kicked me off because of any bias -- that it was done based on the appearance," Strzok said. "If you want to represent what you said accurately, I am happy to answer that question, but I don't appreciate what was originally said being changed."
"I don't give a damn what you appreciate," Gowdy fired back. "I don't appreciate having an FBI agent with an unprecedented level of animus working on two major investigations during 2016."
Of particular concern to lawmakers was a text message Strzok sent to Page pledging to "stop" Trump. The agent explained it by saying that was a natural, personal reaction -- not a promise that he or anyone in the FBI would actually do anything to interfere.
"My presumption -- based on [Trump's] horrible, disgusting behavior -- that the American population would not elect somebody demonstrating that behavior to be president of the United States ... 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," Strzok said.
Strzok said most government workers have political opinions, but do not allow them to interfere with their professional responsibilities.
Goodlatte went on to compare Strzok's messages to prohibited speech against racial bias by jurors at legal trials.
"I think your mixing apples and oranges," Strzok said. "Protected matters that we may not, the government may not and people may not discriminate against . .. That is entirely separate and distinct from political belief or political opinion that on the other hand is protected under the First Amendment."
Still, Goodlatte said the messages criticized Trump in "a very biased, salacious manner" and were "totally inappropriate."
Earlier, Strzok argued to lawmakers his very appearance on Capitol Hill Thursday was probably well-received in Moscow.
"Russian interference in our elections constitutes a grave attack on our democracy," he said in a prepared opening statement.
"Most disturbingly, it has been wildly successful -- sowing discord in our nation and shaking faith in our institutions. ... I truly believe that today's hearing is just another victory notch in [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's belt and another milestone in our enemies' campaign to tear America apart."
That statement could further agitate both House committees, which have already strongly condemned his actions and messages as having a clear political motivation.