Dana Milbank: The ritual humiliation of Peter Strzok

Strzok and colleagues could have doomed Trump with one phone call, leaking the investigation into possible collusion with Russia. But they kept it secret.

FBI Deputy Assistant Director Peter Strzok testifies before the House Committees on the Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform during a hearing on "Oversight of FBI and DOJ Actions Surrounding the 2016 Election," on Capitol Hill, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

They stuck with Donald Trump when he was heard, on video, boasting about sexually assaulting women. They stuck with him still when he acknowledged paying hush money to a porn actress who alleged an affair.

But this last week, congressional Republicans, determined to discredit the investigation by Robert S. Mueller III into Russia's interference in the 2016 election, hauled in FBI agent Peter Strzok and sought to humiliate him over anti-Trump texts he exchanged with his mistress, FBI lawyer Lisa Page.

"I can't help wonder," said Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tex., "when I see you looking there with a little smirk, how many times did you look so innocent into your wife's eye and lie to her about Lisa Page?"

Denunciations rained from the Democratic side.

"Shame on you!"

"Have you no decency?"

"This is intolerable harassment."

"Do you need your medication?"

Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., ruled that Gohmert was free to impugn the witness's character.

The purpose of interrogating Strzok for 10 hours Thursday (after 11 hours in a private session) was clear: ritual humiliation. In fairness, the vast majority condemned Strzok over his texts to his lover without invoking the affair. But then there was Rep. Karen Handel, R-Ga., picking up where Gohmert left off. "Engaging in the kind of behavior that you have been engaging in, especially with the extramarital affair, it opens up an agent to exploitation and even blackmail," she proclaimed.

If Republicans really want to go there, they'll need to investigate the vulnerabilities of some of Strzok's inquisitors on their glass-house committee:

Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., who needled Strzok about "text messages with your friend." DesJarlais, according to divorce filings, had multiple extramarital affairs and encouraged his ex-wife and a patient with whom he had an affair to get abortions.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who is battling the allegations of former Ohio State wrestlers who said he ignored sexual abuse while coaching there.

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who has been under investigation by the House Ethics Committee over payments to a former staffer accused of sexual harassment. Other members of the panel are Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., who was sentenced last year to community service and anger-management classes for assaulting a reporter, and Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., whose infidelity as governor of South Carolina made national headlines.

Judging Strzok also would have been Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Tex., but he recently resigned after revelation of a taxpayer-funded sexual harassment settlement.

And there's Gohmert himself, who defended Jordan against the wrestlers' allegations and who remained on Trump's leadership team through the "Access Hollywood" scandal.

Republicans aimed to show that Strzok went easy on Hillary Clinton's emails and rigged a witch hunt against Trump. Strzok's anti-Trump text messages were dumb and made it easier to attack both probes, and he was deservedly reassigned. His claim that he has no bias is silly: We all have biases. The important thing is not to let bias overtake judgment.

This is why the whole argument against Strzok and the FBI is absurd: Strzok and colleagues could have doomed Trump with one phone call, leaking the investigation into possible collusion with Russia. But they kept it secret. Instead, then-FBI Director James B. Comey went public 11 days before the election with information about the Clinton email probe, tanking her candidacy.

"I was one of a handful of people who knew the details of Russian election interference and its possible connections with members of the Trump campaign," Strzok told the lawmakers, but "exposing that information never crossed my mind."

Goodlatte quickly lost control of the proceedings, as Democrats hectored him with points of order, appeals of his rulings and a call to adjourn. He ordered the removal of Democrats' posters showing those who pleaded guilty in the Mueller probe but then admitted there was no rule against them. He demanded Strzok answer questions in order to "respect the dignity of the Congress" and to provide "facts needed for intelligent legislative action."


Intelligent legislative action?

This Congress?

Strzok didn't play down his antipathy toward Trump. A former Army officer, he said he thought Americans would reject Trump after his "horrible, disgusting behavior" attacking the parents of a fallen soldier.

He called those his "views." I'd call that bias. The question is whether it affected the Clinton and Trump probes. Strzok found it "astounding" and "deeply destructive" to suggest that the FBI's many safeguards against bias could be overridden in "some dark chamber."

The actual outcome — the FBI released damaging information about Clinton on the eve of the election but kept mum about damaging information about Trump — suggests that, if anything, the bias went the other way.

But by all means let's hear more about Peter Strzok's affair.

Dana Milbank | The Washington Post

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. He sketches the foolish, the fallacious and the felonious in politics. Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank