July 15, 2018

Peter Strzok on the Hot Seat

Peter Strzok
Peter Strzok
On television Thursday, I watched parts of the joint session of the House Oversight and Judiciary committees. Committee members were questioning FBI counterespionage expert Peter Strozok. It was exciting viewing.

Strozok famously exchanged anti-Trump text messages with attorney Lisa Page, with whom he was having an affair. Strozok and Page were both members of Robert Mueller's team investigating connections between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. When Mueller became aware of Strozok’s remarks to Page, Mueller dismissed him from the investigation. Republicans have aggressively tried to use Strozok’s alleged bias to discredit the Mueller probe as a political witch hunt. After extensive questioning of Strozok in closed session, Republican committee members expected to pillory him in public and advance their thesis about Mueller’s investigation.

The planned Republican exposé of Mueller team bias, however, turned into a donnybrook. Rachel Maddow described the hearing this way on her July 12 show:
This is not what Republicans were expecting or hoping for from their data—put Peter Strzok in the hot seat, right? They thought this would be beat-the-piñata day. Turns out, the piñata is alive and has its own bat.
Congressional witnesses tend to sit back and take hostile questioning from their interrogators. Not Mr. Strzok. He defended both the FBI and his actions as aggressively as Republican members attacked them. He asserted that he never has and never would lie under oath. Referring to FBI personnel above and below him, he argued, “They would not tolerate any improper behavior in me, any more than I would tolerate it in them. That is who we are as the FBI.”

Of course, it must be said that Strzok is hardly blameless. He used an official, rather than a personal, telephone to send his messages. His excuse that he did so late at night and without much forethought is a poor excuse. His comments using an official channel did nothing to advance the contention that his personal views were unconnected to his official actions as a member of the Mueller team.

What Strzok did not assert is that his suggestion that a Trump presidency would be a threat to the Republic was a perfectly rational evaluation and one held by many, perhaps even most, Americans. He did say that “we” would stop Trump was intended to refer to voters, not to himself or the FBI. Unless you are a member of Congress with an “R” by your name, that is easy to believe.

Strzok’s primary argument was that, in his professional capacity, he was able to set aside his personal views and perform his duties objectively. (His testimony was more compelling than this description suggests, but that isn’t relevant to the point I want to make here.)

Strzok’s GOP inquisitors refuse to believe is that a person can have strong personal views and yet keep those views from affecting one’s professional responsibilities. But this capacity is a foundation of our legal system. Jurors are expected to put aside their personal views and any knowledge remotely relevant to a case and to base their verdict only on court testimony and the law. Likewise, judges are expected to rule in accordance with relevant laws and regulations, to keep their own views from injecting bias into a case, and to fairly explain the law to jurors.

The irony, of course, is that the kind of disinterested execution of one’s duty appeared to be utterly foreign to Republican members of Congress, who, in former times, would have been expected to be seeking truth rather than mere partisan advantage, to be “defend[ing] the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic [emphasis added],” as their oath pledges. Instead, in attacking the FBI’s attempts to protect the country, they were playing into the hands of Vladimir Putin. Their objective was to smear Strzok’s name and promote their theory that the Mueller investigation cannot be an honest one because it was being conducted by people whose primarily failing is that they are human.

Hostility toward the witness reached its peak in the questioning of Texas Republican Louie Gohmert.
The congressman accused Strzok of lying when he said that his personal opinion did not indicate that he was biased in his work on the Mueller investigation. “I wonder how many times did you look so innocently into your wife’s eyes and lie to her about Lisa Page,” Gohmert said. Democrats on the committees were incensed at this uncalled for remark.

The failure to set aside personal opinion and agenda in the cause of good government, however, was most obvious in the congressman who chaired the hearing, Representative Bob Goodlatte of Virginia. Although he deserves credit for letting Strzok speak his peace, he was totally disdainful of Democratic attempts to make use of legitimate parliamentary maneuvers. When a motion was made to adjourn, it was ignored; pleas of personal privilege were ignored. A lot of shouting went on back and forth during the hearing.

In short, Republican committee members could not put their personal agendas aside to do their duty and to seek the truth, yet this is what they expected of Mr. Strzok. Ironically, there is no evidence to suggest that Peter Strzok did not do his duty as he was pledged to do. Republican members of Congress continue to protect the president at all costs.

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