Shouting, insults as FBI agent faces angry Republicans
By ERIC TUCKER and MARY CLARE JALONICK
Friday, July 13
WASHINGTON (AP) — An embattled FBI agent whose anti-Trump text messages exposed the Justice Department to claims of institutional bias vigorously defended himself at an extraordinary congressional hearing that devolved into shouting matches, finger-pointing and veiled references to personal transgressions.
Peter Strzok on Thursday testified publicly for the first time since being removed from special counsel Robert Mueller’s team following the discovery of texts last year that were traded with an FBI lawyer in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.
In a chaotic hearing that spanned 10 hours, he insisted he never allowed personal opinions to affect his work, though he did acknowledge being dismayed by Donald Trump’s behavior during the campaign. He also said he had never contemplated leaking damaging information he knew about the Trump campaign. And he called the hearing “just another victory notch in Putin’s belt,” referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“At no time, in any of those texts, did those personal beliefs ever enter into the realm of any action I took,” Strzok told lawmakers.
In breaking his silence, Strzok came face-to-face with Republicans who argued that the texts had tainted two hugely consequential FBI probes he had helped steer: inquiries into Hillary Clinton’s email use and possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.
“Agent Strzok had Hillary Clinton winning the White House before he finished investigating her,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy, Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “Agent Strzok had Donald Trump impeached before he even started investigating him. That is bias.”
Republican Rep. Darrell Issa made Strzok read some of his texts aloud, including some with profane language. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte asked colleagues to imagine being investigated by someone who “hated you” and “disparaged you in all manner of ways.”
“Would anyone sitting here today believe that this was an acceptable state of affairs, particularly at an agency whose motto is ‘Fidelity, Bravery and Integrity’? I think not,” Goodlatte said.
Strzok repeatedly insisted the texts, including ones in which he called Trump a “disaster” and said “We’ll stop” a Trump candidacy, did not reflect political bias and had not infected his work.
He said the Trump investigation originated not out of personal animus but rather from concern that Russia was meddling in the election, including what he said were allegations of “extraordinary significance” of a Russian offer of assistance to a Trump campaign member.
He made clear his exasperation at being the focus of a hearing when Russian election interference had successfully sowed discord in America.
“I have the utmost respect for Congress’ oversight role, but I truly believe that today’s hearing is just another victory notch in Putin’s belt and another milestone in our enemies’ campaign to tear America apart,” Strzok said.
The hearing brought to the surface a little-discussed reality of public service: Law enforcement agents and other government workers are permitted to espouse political views but are expected to keep them separate from their work. Strzok said he was not alone in holding political opinions, noting that colleagues in 2016 supported both Clinton and Trump but did not reflect those views on the job.
“What I am telling you is I and the other men and women of the FBI, every day take our personal beliefs, and set those aside in vigorous pursuit of the truth — wherever it lies, whatever it is.”
To which Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, responded, “And I don’t believe you.”
Strzok said under aggressive questioning that a much-discussed August 2016 text in which he vowed “we’ll stop” a Trump candidacy followed Trump’s denigration of the family of a dead U.S. service member. He said the late-night, off-the-cuff text reflected his belief that Americans would not stomach such “horrible, disgusting behavior” by the presidential candidate.
But, he added in a raised voice and emphatic tone: “It 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. So, I take great offense, and I take great disagreement to your assertion of what that was or wasn’t.”
Plus, he said, both the Clinton and Russia investigations were handled by large teams that “would not tolerate any improper behavior in me anymore than I would tolerate it in them.
“That is who we are as the FBI,” Strzok said in an animated riff that drew Democratic applause. “And the suggestion that I, in some dark chamber somewhere in the FBI, would somehow cast aside all of these procedures, all of these safeguards and somehow be able to do this is astounding to me. It simply couldn’t happen.”
The hearing exposed clear partisan divides in the House judiciary and oversight committees, as Democrats accused Republicans of trying to divert attention from Trump’s ties to Russia by excessively focusing on Strzok.
Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee said he would give Strzok a Purple Heart if he could. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-New Jersey, said, “I have never seen my colleagues so out of control, so angry.”
But Republicans eager to undermine Mueller’s investigation berated Strzok, citing the texts as evidence of partisan bias within law enforcement. An inspector general report last month blamed Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page for creating an appearance of impropriety through their texts but found that the outcome of the Clinton investigation wasn’t tainted by bias.
At one point, Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Texas Republican, invoked Strzok’s personal life by alluding to the fact the texts were exchanged while he and Page were in a relationship. Gohmert speculated about whether he looked “so innocent” when he looked into his wife’s eyes and lied about the affair.
The comments sparked immediate objections from Democrats, who called them outrageous, and Strzok was livid. He told Gohmert the fact that he would say that “shows more what you stand for” than anything else. Gohmert tried to shout over him and the committee chairman vainly tried to restore order.
When Strzok declined to answer some questions on the Russia probe, Goodlatte suggested Republicans might recess the hearing and hold him in contempt. Democrats objected and Goodlatte eventually let the hearing proceed.
In his opening statement, Strzok acknowledged that while his text message criticism was “blunt,” it wasn’t directed at one person or party and included jabs not only at Trump but also at Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
He said he was one of the few people in 2016 who knew the details of Russian election interference and its possible connections with the Trump campaign, and that that information could have derailed Trump’s election chances. But, he said, “the thought of exposing that information never crossed my mind.”
FBI Director Chris Wray has said employees who were singled out for criticism by the inspector general have been referred to internal disciplinary officials. Strzok’s lawyer said he was escorted from the FBI building last month as the disciplinary process proceeds.
Page, who left the FBI in May, is expected to be interviewed by lawmakers behind closed doors on Friday after being subpoenaed to appear.
Associated Press writer Chad Day in Washington contributed to this report.
Follow Eric Tucker on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/etuckerAP
Lee Hamilton’s Views
Comments on Congress
The Dangers of Debt
Wednesday, May 09, 2018
Washington politicians give lip service to debt and deficit reduction, but for the most part, each party is trying to blame the other. A problem of this duration, severity and complexity is not going to be solved without a bipartisan approach.
Politicians and commentators these days like to point to an array of threats to our constitutional system. There’s one, though, that doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it should: our national debt.
We may not yet be in imminent danger of fiscal collapse, but we’re moving into uncharted waters. We are among the most indebted nations in the world, and it’s only getting worse. Thanks to our new tax law, we’re staring ahead at routine federal budget deficits north of $1 trillion each year — compared to what now seems like a paltry $665 billion in 2017.
As we look down the road to an aging population, rising entitlement costs, and skyrocketing interest payments, things promise to go from dismal to dire. In just five years, the head of the Congressional Budget Office warned a few weeks ago, we’ll be spending more on interest payments on the debt than we do on our entire military. By 2028, we’ll be closing in on $1 trillion in interest payments alone each year.
We’re running these deficits at a time of full employment, when the economy is doing well. This is exactly the wrong time to be pressing on the accelerator, because when the downturn comes — which, inevitably, it will — we won’t have room to maneuver.
The more debt we accumulate, the more interest rates rise and the more our spending on debt serves to dampen economic growth. Small wonder that former Fed chair Janet Yellen told Congress last year that rising debt “is the type of thing that should keep people awake at night.”
The problem is not quite that nobody’s talking about the debt in Washington. They are. But it’s not a productive discussion — especially among the politicians who will need to roll up their sleeves and tackle it. They give lip service to debt and deficit reduction, but for the most part, each party is trying to blame the other.
This is not just a waste of time, it’s counter-productive. Because a problem of this duration, severity and complexity is not going to be solved without a bipartisan approach.
Tackling deficits and the debt always takes a back seat to other priorities: tax cuts and spending increases of all kinds and descriptions. Politicians fall prey to the temptation of saying that economic growth will save us — whether it’s spurred by tax cuts or spending increases. We’ve been fed this line for decades, and it hasn’t worked out yet.
To be sure, carefully targeted tax cuts and spending on investments in the economy’s underpinnings — infrastructure, say, or human development — can enhance economic growth. But we’ve had too much that was merely political fodder, and it’s done more harm than good.
What do we do about all of this? “The time to repair the roof,” John F. Kennedy once said, “is when the sun is shining.” That’s why it’s time right now, while the sun is shining on the economy, to repair our fiscal problems. We need to restrain the growth of spending, especially in entitlement programs. And we need to recognize that this most recent tax cut, with its fiscal stimulus and further explosion of debt, is exactly the wrong medicine.
Like a lot of problems, the longer we wait to act, the larger and more disruptive the eventual solution will need to be. We’re probably in the most fiscally irresponsible period in recent American history. Debt is a major threat to our preeminence in the world, since it constrains our ability to steer the economy and react forcefully to unexpected events. How we deal with it will be a real test of our constitutional system and our political system.
Can Congress and the President act against the popular grain to cut spending and raise taxes in the public interest? Can we, as citizens, demand credible action by our political leaders even when it hits us in our pocketbooks?
What we need to do is no secret: we have to spend less and tax more. This is very hard to do. But the system is not self-correcting. Unless Americans demand action, we will continue down our current road until, at some point, the pavement ends and the wheels come off.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.
Media Burdens Run Two Ways
Wednesday, May 23, 2018
I was chatting with a group of students the other day when one of them looked me in the eye and commented, “You’re very tough on journalists.” I had to plead guilty.
Of course I’m tough on journalists. Maybe even as tough on them as they are on politicians.
Our representative democracy depends on journalists doing their jobs. Why? Because it’s essential that citizens get the solid, accurate, and fair information they need to make good judgments about politicians and policy decisions. Our system cannot work if journalists and the institutions they work for don’t shoulder the burden of serving as watchdogs, holding government accountable, shining a light on overlooked challenges, and exploring complicated issues in as clear-eyed a manner as possible.
Which is why, if you value representative democracy, you have to be deeply concerned about the once-over-lightly journalism that fills our media. Too often, reporters, commentators and online contributors focus on trivia, partisan posturing, and political gamesmanship, and not on the substance of issues.
The disruptive forces that have laid waste to traditional journalistic organizations have pared down the newsrooms that can carry out in-depth journalism and investigative reporting. Yet the world we live in is so complicated and so difficult to understand that the need is greater than ever for journalists to pick out what really matters in their communities or in the nation and convey solid information to the citizen.
I have no illusions about how difficult this is. Nailing down good information requires a lot of effort, persistence, and time. A single story can take months to follow carefully. Making sense of the issues that affect us — in politics, the legal system, medicine, war and peace, the economy — requires patience, expertise, analytical skill, and the ability to convey complexity in a simple fashion.
The prevalence of fake news and misinformation makes this search for objective truth ever more difficult and challenging. If we don’t have the right information as citizens, then we don’t have the facts to shape our opinions — and we’re going to be in trouble as a nation.
Disentangling truth and untruth from the citizen’s standpoint is really hard. So I applaud and admire journalists who are dedicated to truth. And there are enough of them that there is still plenty of good, solid reporting.
It’s not always easy to find, though, amidst all the less-than-solid noise that fills our media landscape. This places a particular burden on us, as citizens, to work hard to find it and understand it. Especially because some of the institutions we once relied upon for independent, objective information — I’m thinking specifically of Congress here — have increasingly stopped serving as models for the search for truth.
The plain truth is, there’s much to distract both journalists and citizens from what’s really necessary to cover and to understand. Sorting through all the information at our fingertips, distilling meaning from it, zeroing in on what’s really important: that’s work that both journalists and ordinary citizens have to undertake.
If you’re a local journalist, that means looking into every nook and cranny of government and chasing down what’s important and what doesn’t add up. For more broad-based journalists, the responsibility is to look at events, analyze them, and convey what needs to be conveyed to the public to make sound decisions about good governance.
And for citizens, it means conscientiously following reliable, fact-oriented media — and not just a single source, either, because none has a monopoly on the truth — and using their reporting to make discriminating judgments about public affairs.
Getting all of this right is essential to making our government work. Journalists have to ask themselves whether they are getting to the bottom of stories and giving enough information to citizens so they can make good judgments — or are they too focused on trivia and entertainment and posturing? And citizens — whose media tastes drive so much of what the media provide — need to be focused on what matters.
It’s a complicated dance, but in the end, it comes down to one thing: journalists need to provide, and citizens need to ask for, the reporting that’s necessary to make the country work.
Politics: We Need It
Wednesday, June 06, 2018
Every so often, I jot down a list of the things that discourage me about our country. There’s the widespread disregard for our core values of tolerance and mutual respect, for instance. Our declining national optimism. Our relaxed attitude toward fixing our election machinery, overseeing financial institutions, and making sure that our key democratic institutions and processes are working effectively. There’s wage stagnation, income inequality, a high poverty rate, failing infrastructure, inadequate health-care coverage, a dysfunctional Congress…. You get the idea.
This is not really a list of failings. It’s a to-do list. And it pretty much begs the question, if we’re not to throw up our hands and give in, how do we make progress on it? Well, I’ll tell you: politics.
I suppose most Americans will disagree. How can we depend on people — politicians — whom many hold in utter disregard? And what can we expect from political institutions like legislatures, Congress, the bureaucracy, the political parties, and a rickety electoral system that are widely viewed with suspicion?
The answer, I think, has to be that we should do all we can to encourage and support them to fix these problems, because they’re all we’ve got.
American politics can be an inefficient, noisy, messy ride. But be careful before you condemn it and its practitioners, because alternatives like a chaotic anarchy or the brutal efficiency of a dictatorship are far worse.
In other words, if we’re going to attack the problems that concern us, we need politics: otherwise, our government would grind to a halt. We would be without a means of remedying our collective problems. The institutions of politics — the rule of law, elections, city councils, legislatures, Congress — are the way we make operational a government of, by, and for the people. They are how we work together.
At its heart, politics is about searching for a remedy to a problem, and building support behind that remedy. It’s the way we try to keep citizens satisfied and strive to meet their hopes, demands and dreams. At its best, politics and political involvement are how we give citizens a feeling of community and an understanding that we’re all in this together.
It’s our vehicle for expressing shared values and for reconciling the tensions, diversity and differences among us that are bound to arise as we tackle these enormously difficult challenges.
This is not to say that our system is even close to perfect. The list of things we need to fix — from the influence of money on elections and political decision-making to an elections machinery that is crying out for attention and reform — is long. But we need to strike a balance.
As a citizen you have to be critical of your system and ask yourself how to improve it and support reforms that would make it better. Yet I worry that our disdain for politicians and the howling criticism aimed at our democratic institutions in recent years has so undermined confidence in the system that people have lost their trust in their fellow citizens, their elected representatives, and their institutions — in other words, in the very people, organizations, and core values that can get us out of this mess.
If you ask people what they most cherish about our political system, most will say it’s the idea of opportunity. For all its fits and starts, its horse-trading and negotiating and raw give and take, politics is also how we try to provide equal rights, civil liberties, and a fair shot at opportunity for all. Sure, we fall short of the ideal. But in a representative democracy, it’s the mechanism we possess to try to create a more perfect union.
The plain truth is, it doesn’t do much good just to talk about the ideals or shared values of America. You also have to try to realize them on the ground, to pull them out of the complicated — and often self-contradictory — mass of popular longings and opinions and translate them into policy and law. For better or worse, politics is how we do this.
Hey Leadership! Let Congress Work
Wednesday, June 20, 2018
There aren’t many people who would argue that Congress is working well these days. It’s been 24 years since it passed a comprehensive budget without resorting to omnibus bills. It can’t pass health-care legislation. Its members talk about the desperate need for a new infrastructure bill, but can’t even get one drafted.
It’s unable to produce immigration reform. It’s facing a host of issues on the environment, education, trade, the concentration of wealth and economic power, war powers and our entanglements abroad — and it can’t find common ground or develop a consensus around solutions to any of them.
This goes a long way toward explaining why Congress is held in such low public esteem: it can’t make progress on issues of importance to ordinary citizens.
How did we get here? How did the House and the Senate — which these days can only be called “the world’s greatest deliberative body” with ironic air-quotes — become so frustratingly unproductive?
There’s no single answer, of course. Partisanship and polarization among politicians and the American people as a whole have made honest negotiation and compromise politically fraught. A lot of members simply don’t believe in government, and oppose government action. Many are content to defer to the president.
We have a presidential administration beset by internal problems, vacancies, and cabinet appointees struggling to perform effectively. This at the same time that very few voices in Congress speak up for sustaining its role as a co-equal branch of government — let alone for congressional dynamism and policy leadership.
Of course, it’s hard to be effective when you don’t work very hard at legislating. You can’t explore the complexities of the issues that need addressing, build consensus, or hammer out legislation when you’re so concerned with raising money and pursuing re-election that you put in only a three-day legislative work week.
At its current law-making pace, one pundit noted recently, Congress has “a real chance at being the least productive legislature since the 32nd, from 1851 to 1853.” This is a far cry from the government envisioned by our Founders, who believed that Congress should drive federal action.
In the end, it’s hard to avoid faulting the congressional leadership. To be sure, there are a lot of members who no longer really identify with the body in which they serve. They rhetorically separate themselves from the institution. They identify with their party, or with special interest groups they support, but not with Congress itself. And so they don’t seem to carry any sense of responsibility for its functioning.
But it’s leadership’s task to turn that around. Congress has never been easy to corral, but strong leaders (and I have seen many of them) have always understood that they had to work in the environment they were given. They were able to make Congress work.
There’s a list of procedural and structural reforms that might help — stopping the three-day work week, strengthening committees, following the traditional order, campaign finance reform, and nonpartisan redistricting that would lead to more competitive congressional seats. But really what needs to happen is that the leadership must let the House and Senate — the full House and Senate — work their wills on the major political issues of the day. These days, leaders usually do their utmost to avoid this.
Putting power back in the hands of ordinary members may seem counter-intuitive when just above I suggested that Congress needs strong leaders. It does — just not leaders who manipulate the process to get the results that they themselves, or some faction of their caucuses, want to see.
Rather, we need leaders who enable members of the Congress to vote on the major issues of the day. This means leadership that recognizes that Congress is filled with diverse and often conflicting opinions, and that to represent and serve the American people as intelligently and effectively as possible, members should vote on the clear-cut and specific issues of most concern to Americans.
Instead, too often today the leadership blocks the full House and Senate from working their respective wills on major legislation. This should end.