WASHINGTON — The long-awaited questioning of the FBI agent at the heart of the 2016 election probe was always expected to be one for the history books. But Congress outdid itself.
After 10 hours of finger-pointing, F-bomb reading and in-your-face testimony between special agent Peter Strzok and a joint panel of 70 lawmakers, the partisan divide over the investigation of Russian interference in the election of President Donald Trump remains precipitously deep, with no political bridge in sight.
On the one side are Democrats who heard in Strzok’s testimony an unflinching, if flawed, G-man trying to stop Russian interference in American democracy. On the other are Republicans who see anti-Trump text messages Strzok sent to his lover as evidence of alarming bias at the highest levels of government.
The aftermath produced one certainty: Congress is hopelessly split in conducting executive branch oversight of the Trump administration. Lawmakers reflect their constituents, and after running on partisan overdrive for years, they staked out defiantly opposing sides. The level of acrimony poses a real-life stress test for the ability of Congress to function.
“Politicians love to grandstand and that was a perfect venue for all of them to do so,” said Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., who said the proceedings reminded him of the Bill Clinton impeachment sessions he watched as a young man two decades ago. In fact, some of the same veteran lawmakers were still there playing starring roles, he said. “And I would contend that Mr. Strzok was doing it a little, too.”
In his opening remarks, Strzok, a career FBI agent, set the stage for what was about to unfold.
“I understand we’re living in a political era in which insults and insinuation often drown out honesty and integrity,” he began. “But the honest truth is that Russian interference in our elections constitutes a grave attack on our democracy. Most disturbingly, it has been wildly successful, sowing discord in our nation and shaking faith in our intuitions.”
But that was a topic for another day. The joint hearing of the Judiciary and Oversight panels quickly morphed into a spectacle that lawmakers compared to earlier showdowns — the Joe McCarthy hearings aimed at rooting out communists, the probe of Hillary Clinton’s role after the attack on Benghazi, Libya.
From the start, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., the Judiciary chairman, struggled to maintain control.
After the top Democrat on the Oversight panel, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, erected large posters of the individuals indicted so far in the government’s Russia probe, Goodlatte ordered them taken down, calling them “inappropriate.”
“Is there a rule for that, Mr. Chairman?” Cummings retorted. “Cite the rule!” came voices from the panel.
Those spats paled in compared to what came next.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., a bulldog investigator during Barack Obama’s administration, asked Strzok to read aloud his disparaging text messages about Trump to FBI attorney Lisa Page, with whom he was having an affair.
“OMG, he’s an idiot,” Strzok read one. Then another, “What the F happened to our country, Lis?”
Issa: “OK, read it again that way.”
Strzok: “Was it not intelligible?
Issa: “I just want to hear it one more time.”
Strzok: “OK, sir, happy to indulge you. … ‘What the F happened to our country, Lis?'”
In another exchange, Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, asked the FBI agent if he used the same “smirk” and lied to his wife about the affair. Democrats howled in protest, one questioning if Gohmert needed to take his medication.
During a break, Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., who grilled Strzok on his security clearance, acknowledged there were “probably some comments that were over the top, sure, on both sides.”
But Collins said Americans can see through the theatrics. “They do understand this investigation needs to happen.”
At its core, though, the hearing reflected passions that are running so hot it’s made it challenging for Congress, or at least the House, to set aside its divisions to consider the serious questions underlying Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation as well as the behavior of the FBI agent since reassigned from the probe.
Republican Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio pressed Strzok on the origins of the so-called Trump dossier that is part of the investigation. The congressman said later on Fox that Strzok’s text messages about impeaching the president “show you how bad this investigation has really been.”
Republican Rep. Michael Conaway of Texas, who took over the House’s now-shuttered investigation into Russian election interference, said about the hearing, “Even though it’s got a lot of warts on it, the American people need to understand exactly what’s going on.”
On Friday, the joint panel hauled Page in for a closed-door interview. The Judiciary Committee had threatened her with contempt of Congress if she didn’t appear.
But also on Friday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the Justice Department had indicted 12 Russian officials on charges of hacking Democratic emails in 2016 and releasing them months before voters went to the polls.
“The most offensive thing is the degree to which the Republicans are, day in and day out, trying to undermine a legitimate investigation into Russian interference in our election,” said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. “They have sold their souls for Donald Trump.”
Democrats say the Republicans are creating a sideshow at a time when another opportunity for Russian meddling in elections in right around the corner in November. Polling shows public support for the Mueller investigation is slipping.
“I have no words for the damage we’re doing to our democracy, and to people’s faith we can take on real issues and come up with real answers,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash. “It makes me very, very sad. And then very angry. Sometimes alternating.”
But this is the state of affairs in Congress, says Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton.
“Civility has gone by the wayside for decades now,” he said by email. “The fighting is fierce, bitter and petty.”
If anything, Trump’s style of governing “just made it OK to act the way people feel on the Hill and to abandon any pretense that things could be different.”