WASHINGTON – In a 10-hour marathon joint hearing between the House Judiciary and Oversight Committees on Capitol Hill Thursday, senior FBI agent Peter Strzok began his testimony on the offense.
"I strongly believe that today's hearing is just another victory notch in Putin's belt," he told members of the committees.
Strzok played major roles in investigations into both Hillary Clinton's private email server and potential coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign.
At the center of suspicion surrounding him are a series of text messages he exchanged with his lover, former FBI attorney Lisa Page.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte read one.
"On August 26, 2016, 'Just went to a southern Virginia Walmart – I could smell the Trump support,' and 'smell' is in capital letters. What does Trump support smell like Mister Strzok?" Goodlatte asked.
"Sir, that's an expression of speech. I clearly wasn't smelling one thing or the other," Strzok responded.
He told members of the committees that he separated his political opinions from his investigations into Clinton and the Trump campaign.
Once special counsel Robert Mueller found out about his text messages he fired him from the Russia investigation.
Some of the most intense questioning on that point came from House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC).
"It wasn't the discovery of your texts, Mr. Strzok. It was the existence of your bias that got you kicked off," Gowdy said.
Strzok replied, "No, Mr. Gowdy, it wasn't. I do not have bias. My personal opinions in no way—"
"Well then why did you get kicked off?" Gowdy demanded.
"Mr. Gowdy, my understanding of why I was kicked off was that based on an understanding of those texts, and the perception that they might create—" Strzok said.
"Well, hang on a second, Agent Strzok!" Gowdy interjected. "Hang on a second. Perception — you're saying it was the perception! There are 13 Democrats on the special counsel probe, including one who went to what he hoped was a victory party (for Hillary Clinton)!" Gowdy said, pointing out the pro-Hillary bias among other members of the investigative team who weren't booted from it.
At one point, Strzok refused to answer questions, citing a directive by FBI attorneys, leading the chairman to threaten him with contempt of Congress.
"And potential criminal liability – do you understand that?" Goodlatte threatened Strzok.
During the marathon hearing, Democrats staunchly defended Strzok. "If I could give you a Purple Heart, I would," said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN).
Republicans, on the other hand, peppered Strzok with questions and expressed outrage that's been building for months.
"I don't appreciate having an FBI agent with an unprecedented level of animus working on two major investigations during 2016," Gowdy said.
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) even questioned Strzok's character.
"I've talked to FBI agents around the country. You've embarrassed them, you've embarrassed yourself and I can't help but wonder when I see you looking with a little smirk – how many times did you look so innocent into your wife's eye and lie to her about Lisa Page?" Gohmert said impassionedly as Democrats on the committee yelled, "Mister Chairman, this is outrageous!" and a female member yelled, "You need your medication."
"The fact that you would question whether or not that was the sort of look I would engage within a family member who I have acknowledged hurting goes more to a discussion about your character and what you stand for," Strzok struck back.
Today Lisa Page will be questioned by members of Congress in a closed-door session, having had the benefit of watching Strzok's testimony on Thursday.