DAVID GREENE, HOST:
An FBI agent has been testifying on Capitol Hill this morning. Peter Strzok was really key to the bureau's investigations into Hillary Clinton's emails and also into Russian meddling in the 2016 elections. He has come under very tight scrutiny since the Justice Department discovered thousands of text messages he exchanged with a senior FBI lawyer he was having an affair with. Their text messages also showed their personal alarm at then-candidate Donald Trump. Now, supporters of the president say these texts are evidence of a conspiracy against Trump by senior officials in the FBI going all the way up to then-Director James Comey. NPR's Tim Mak joins me now. He covers national security and politics at NPR. He's been following this. Hi there, Tim.
TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey.
GREENE: So this is clearly on President Trump's mind. This morning, he was attending the NATO summit. Obviously lots he needed to be paying attention to there, but he still had time to tweet. "How can the rigged witch hunt proceed when it was started, influenced and worked on for an extended period of time by former FBI agent lover Peter Strzok?" - end quote. So explain what case the president's trying to make here?
MAK: The president is trying to get at the heart of the legitimacy of the Mueller probe into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. And what he's saying is, look; these folks who were involved in the early stages of this investigation were clearly biased against me or they had some sort of personal bias against me, and because of that, there can't be a legitimate investigation into my campaign's activities. He's trying to undercut in some ways whether or not the investigation can ever come to some sort of truthful outcome.
GREENE: OK, so if that is the narrative that the president is trying to build, does it seem coordinated with what we're hearing from House Republicans as they question Strzok this morning?
MAK: Yeah. So this hearing so far has been a real clash between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans are trying to make the point that there is a problem in the FBI, that the bureau has an issue of bias, particularly with regards to how this investigation began. And they're really hitting the point home. The hearing started at about 10 o'clock this morning Eastern time and has been basically going back and forth on the issue of whether or not Strzok can answer various questions.
GREENE: So, I mean, there's obviously a sense among supporters of the president that these text messages are clear evidence of a bias. What is Strzok's response to that? I mean, has he addressed it this morning?
MAK: So he said basically in his opening statement that, hey, yeah, I have expressed personal political opinions during the 2016 campaign. And that's what we show in the texts that are now public, that he did not view Trump favorably and actually had some disparaging things to say about President or then-candidate Trump. But he says basically not at any point in more than 20 years in working for the FBI did his personal opinions impact his official actions. He also connected the current hearing and the current set of scandals that involve him as being related to the Russia issue. Here's what he said.
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PETER STRZOK: I have the utmost respect for Congress' oversight role, but I strongly believe today's hearing is just another victory notch in Putin's belt and another milestone in our enemies' campaign to tear America apart.
GREENE: Wow. That's quite a charge, that this hearing is a victory notch in Putin's belt.
MAK: I think - that's absolutely the case. I mean, the thing is that Russia didn't make him, you know, send these personal text messages that disparaged candidates in the political process. And I think that's what he misses when he makes that kind of accusation. You might say, oh, well, it's very legitimate that he may have had personal opinions and that didn't affect his work. But on the other hand, I think a fair response to that would be there is some level of misconduct that he's been shown to be involved in.
GREENE: Well - and how are Democrats handling that if there is what appears to be some level of misconduct but at the same time they're obviously defending both the Mueller investigation and law enforcement?
MAK: I think they're making a couple points here - firstly, that there are other more important issues like the issue of the separation of families at the borders that the committees should be investigating and, secondly, I think they're mucking up the works a lot this morning. They're raising procedural issues, parliamentary inquiries, points of order and basically even trying to adjourn the hearing entirely.
GREENE: All right. NPR's Tim Mak reporting for us this morning. Tim, thanks a lot.
MAK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.