The embattled F.B.I. agent who oversaw the opening of the Russia investigation mounted an aggressive personal defense on Thursday, rejecting accusations that he let his private political views bias his official actions and labeling Republican attacks on him “another victory notch in Putin’s belt.”
“Let me be clear, unequivocally and under oath: not once in my 26 years of defending my nation did my personal opinions impact any official action I took,” the agent, Peter Strzok, told House lawmakers investigating what Republicans say is evidence of rampant bias at the top levels of the F.B.I.
In his first public comments, he concluded his prepared remarks with a pointed broadside against his antagonizers.
“I understand we are living in a political era in which insults and insinuation often drown out honesty and integrity,” Mr. Strzok said, continuing: “I have the utmost respect for Congress’s 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.”
He concluded: “As someone who loves this country and cherishes its ideals, it is profoundly painful to watch and even worse to play a part in.”
The fiery hearing, convened by House Judiciary and Oversight committees, devolved into a spectacle almost as soon as it began, as pent-up rage between House Republicans and the F.B.I. broke into the open in spectacular fashion. Republicans were intent on painting Mr. Strzok as seething with contempt for President Trump and his supporters — and by implication, painting the agency’s investigation of the president as motivated by animus.
To a surprising extent, Mr. Strzok appeared just as intent on defending the F.B.I.’s actions, the integrity of the Russia investigation and his own behavior.
“At every step, at every investigative decision, there were multiple layers of people above me, assistant director, deputy director, director of the F.B.I., and multiple layers of people below me, section chiefs, unit chiefs and analysts, all of whom were involved in all of these decisions,” he told Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, after the chairman of the House Oversight Committee grilled him. “They would not tolerate any improper behavior in me any more than I would tolerate it in them.”
“The suggestion that I, in some dark chamber in the F.B.I., would somehow cast aside all of these procedures, all of these safeguards and do this is astounding to me,” he said. “It couldn’t happen.”
For their part, Democrats tried to run interference for Mr. Strzok, using parliamentary points of order and other tactics to protect him from Republican prying.
“All of these inquiries about your political opinions as revealed by these text messages are irrelevant and wrong, unless it can be shown — as it has not been shown, as was found definitively not to be the case in the Hillary investigation and has not been shown in the Russia investigation — that they affected any decisions in the investigation,” Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, told Mr. Strzok.
Mr. Strzok, a career agent, played a pivotal role in two of the bureau’s most politically fraught cases: the F.B.I.’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email practices as secretary of state and a separate inquiry into Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 election and its interactions with the Trump campaign.
Mr. Strzok has come under intense scrutiny since the Justice Department’s inspector general discovered thousands of text messages that he exchanged with a senior F.B.I. lawyer, Lisa Page, colorfully disparaging Mr. Trump.
In one exchange, Ms. Page, who also worked on both investigations, said to Mr. Strzok that Trump is “not ever going to become president, right?”
“No. No he won’t. We’ll stop it,” Mr. Strzok replied.
Mr. Strzok said on Thursday that he deeply regretted the messages, but that they did not amount to more than private political beliefs. He defended that particular text as a late-night, “off-the-cuff” message after “then-candidate Trump” insulted “the immigrant family of a fallen war hero,” Humayun Khan.
“And my presumption, based on that horrible, disgusting behavior” was “that the American population would not elect somebody demonstrating that behavior to be president of the United States,” he confessed.
He said a broader look at his texts would show disparaging remarks toward all the candidates in the 2016 campaign.
“To suggest we can parse down the shorthand like they’re some contract for a car is simply not consistent with my or most people’s use of text messaging,” Mr. Strzok said at the end of the heated exchange.
House Republicans and Mr. Trump have seized on those texts, charging that they undercut the integrity of the Russia investigation, which has since been taken over by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III. Republican lawmakers immediately confronted the agent with volumes of such messages on Thursday.
Mr. Gowdy dismissed Mr. Strzok’s defenses, saying that the agent has a “most unusual and largely self-serving definition of bias” that had undermined the fair administration of justice.
“He thinks calling someone destabilizing isn’t bias,” Mr. Gowdy said, referencing texts sent by Mr. Strzok. “He thinks protecting the country from someone he hasn’t even begun to investigate isn’t bias. He thinks promising to ‘stop’ someone he is supposed to be fairly investigating from ever becoming president isn’t bias.”
Mr. Gowdy said later, “That is prejudging guilt. It is prejudging punishment. And it is textbook bias.”
A former Army officer, Mr. Strzok has worked at the F.B.I. for more than two decades. He rose quickly through its ranks, earning a reputation within the bureau as one of its most savvy and reliable counterintelligence agents. It was that reputation and increasingly senior positions that landed him on the teams investigating both Mrs. Clinton and eventually Mr. Trump.
The inspector general’s report was unsparing in its criticism of Mr. Strzok and Ms. Page, but found no evidence that their personal views had affected prosecutorial decisions in the Clinton case. The inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, continues to investigate the F.B.I.’s handling of key aspects of the Russia case.
Mr. Strzok, who spent a contentious day locked behind closed doors for an interview with the same lawmakers late last month, did not have kind words for the Republicans leading the committee.
The committees have also demanded testimony from Ms. Page, issuing a subpoena for her to appear in private for an interview and threatening her with contempt when she did not meet that deadline. Lawyers for Ms. Page said she was happy to testify, but only after the F.B.I. allowed her to review her notes and relevant case files. Two Republican chairmen issued an ultimatum on Wednesday that Ms. Page either testify alongside Mr. Strzok on Thursday or appear in private on Friday.
Republicans were itching for a fight as much as Mr. Strzok was. Citing instructions from the F.B.I. that he was not authorized to discuss certain aspects of the ongoing Russia investigation, Mr. Strzok declined to answer the first question of the hearing. Representative Robert Goodlatte of Virginia, the Judiciary Committee chairman, told Mr. Strzok that he could either answer the question or face contempt proceedings for defying the Congress.
Democrats vocally objected, peppering Mr. Goodlatte with objections and requests, as the hearing devolved into partisan bickering for minutes at a time. Mr. Strzok ultimately maintained that he could not answer the question.