On Friday, House Republicans took a parting shot at Pete Strzok, the former FBI agent who helped lead the two biggest investigations of the past three years: one into Hillary Clinton’s emails, the other into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Stung by an emphatic rebuke in the 2018 midterms, the Republicans defiantly subpoenaed former FBI Director James Comey to testify before a joint session of two House committees.* For six hours, they grilled Comey in an effort to trap him, trash Strzok, and discredit the investigations. They failed.
Strzok, whose name is pronounced struck, is guilty of two things. One is having an extramarital affair with Lisa Page, a colleague in the investigations. The other is writing text messages to Page in which he expressed contempt for then-candidate Donald Trump. It’s wrong to cheat on your spouse, and it’s reckless to criticize a subject of investigation in ways that cast doubt on the investigation’s fairness. But Strzok argues that he never allowed his assessment of Trump as a cad and a menace—which was correct—to corrupt the FBI inquiries. And every examination of Strzok’s conduct supports that argument.
In December 2017, when Republicans first learned of Strzok’s texts, they pounced on them, seeking to overturn Clinton’s exoneration and destroy the Russia investigation. But six months later, after a thorough review, the Justice Department’s inspector general issued a 500-page report that showed Strzok had argued internally for warrants, subpoenas, and other aggressive steps against Clinton. The report concluded: “We found no evidence that the conclusions by Department prosecutors were affected by bias or other improper considerations.”
So Republicans summoned Strzok to a hearing in July, hoping for better material. They staged it like a trial, quoting from his harshest texts about Trump. But when Strzok challenged them to cite an instance in which his personal views had skewed an investigative decision, they couldn’t. They accused the FBI of neglecting a trove of classified material, which they claimed could have implicated Clinton. That line of attack backfired when Strzok pointed out that he had advocated searching that material.
In August, under political pressure, the FBI fired Strzok. House Republicans gloated over his demise, but three months later, voters chucked them out of the majority. On their way out, the Republicans subpoenaed Comey, setting up Friday’s showdown. Rep. Trey Gowdy, the South Carolina Republican who had spearheaded the attack on Clinton over Benghazi, led the interrogation of Comey. Again and again, Gowdy portrayed Strzok as a villain whose animus against Trump had corrupted the email and Russia investigations. Comey agreed with Gowdy that Strzok’s texts created an “appearance of bias” and warranted discipline by the FBI. But Comey demolished the allegation of biased conduct:
I never saw any indication at all of bias by Mr. Strzok or Ms. Page. And, in fact, Peter Strzok helped draft my letter to Congress on Oct. 28  that Hillary Clinton blames for her defeat. So it’s hard for me to see how he was on Team Clinton secretly at that point in time. And he also was one of the handful of people in the entire world who knew we were investigating four Americans who had some connection to Mr. Trump during the summer of 2016, and he didn’t tell a soul. So it’s hard to reconcile that with his being on Team Clinton.
Strzok was “among the best,” Comey told the committee. “He was very highly regarded as a counterintelligence professional, and I saw that borne out in the nature and quality of his work with me.” At the end of the hearing, when Comey was asked whether he still regarded the Clinton investigation as “entirely apolitical and professional … in light of the text messages of Agent Strzok” and others, he replied: “Yes, very much.”
Instead of discrediting Strzok, the Republicans discredited themselves. Gowdy suggested that Trump’s words to Comey last year about former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn—“I hope you can let this go”—weren’t obstruction of justice, since they failed to stop the FBI from investigating Flynn. “Did you act or fail to act in any way in the Flynn matter because of what the president said to you?” Gowdy pressed Comey. “Did his comments prevent you from following the leads that you thought should have been followed?” In Gowdy’s cynical reckoning, Trump was innocent because his corrupt acts failed, but Strzok was guilty even though he committed no corrupt acts.
Strzok shouldn’t have written those texts. You can’t go around calling a dirtbag a dirtbag when part of your job is to investigate, in a publicly credible way, whether the dirtbag was involved in crimes. But it’s been more than a year since the texts came out. Republicans have had three chances—the IG report, the July hearing, and Friday’s hearing—to produce any evidence that Strzok’s low opinion of Trump altered the investigations. Three times, they’ve swung and missed. They’ve struck out.
Correction, Dec. 11, 2018: This article originally said that Comey testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The hearing was a joint session of that committee and the House Committee on the Judiciary.