Editor’s Note: Josh Campbell is a CNN analyst, providing insight on national security, crime, and justice issues. He previously served as a supervisory special agent with the FBI, conducting global terrorism and kidnapping investigations. Follow him on Twitter @joshscampbell. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Congress has done it again. It has wasted our time and proven it cannot seriously exercise its critical role of holding the executive branch accountable.
In an important hearing Thursday, ostensibly scheduled to allow embattled FBI agent Peter Strzok to face the American people and answer important questions about his conduct during the 2016 election season, House Republicans could not help but stray from oversight into embarrassing overreach.
The committee hearing should have been an opportunity to ask Strzok about his now-famous text messages with former FBI lawyer Lisa Page, a fellow employee with whom he had engaged in an extramarital affair and exchanged communications disparaging then-candidate Trump. Congress should have taken this chance to grill him about both the Hillary Clinton and Russia investigations to evaluate whether his personal political beliefs impacted his work.
Instead, the spectacle devolved into a chaotic scene more reminiscent of a bar fight than a congressional hearing, with members of Congress yelling over each other and displaying their complete lack of respect for decorum. In one exchange impugning Strzok’s integrity, Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Texas Republican, offered the following disgusting remark, “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?”
There is no question, our present polarized political climate has tempers flaring on both sides of the political aisle, but this raucous hearing did not prove to be the venue for adult discussion. Instead, we had three separate parties – Republicans, Democrats, and Strzok – talking past each other with differing motivations. They were not only ships passing in the night, they weren’t even operating in the same dimension.
Republicans, intent on proving the existence of a politically motivated cabal of deep-staters within the FBI, expressed dismay at not receiving answers to questions they expected to be addressed. Democrats were clearly frustrated at the GOP showboating and badgering of the witness. Peter Strzok, for his part, sought to explain himself and the batches of personal communications publicly released without context by Congress.
Despite its efforts to the contrary, Congress succeeded in humanizing someone who has long been a political punching bag of House Republicans and the President of the United States.
Strzok’s demeanor – speaking passionately only when required to defend himself – stood in stark contrast to the grandstanding of committee members. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-South Carolina, reached into his quiver of snarky remarks, slinging arrows that incredibly bounced off Strzok’s shield of calm self-control.
Embattled Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, determined the best way to proceed was to consistently interrupt the witness and prevent him from providing any fulsome answers. (How rich it is that Jordan was separately engaged in his own struggle to fight off allegations of wrongdoing at the very moment he worked to inhibit the ability of a witness to defend himself.)
In the end, the only thing we really learned is that Strzok – a government official who exercised terrible judgment in his mode and manner of communicating – is a fallible human being. He also came across as a long-term public servant with a passion for protecting the United States against foreign threats. When compared to the juvenile behavior of those in charge of his inquisition, he came across as almost saintly.
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This hearing was not only a colossal waste of time, but it served to leave the American people with many more questions than when it began. The only thing we can conclude with any certainty is that Congress is broken beyond repair, and we still do not fully know to what extent politics may have played a role in the actions of law enforcement.
While many Republican legislators sought to convince the American people that the FBI was operating corruptly, they didn’t make much headway. In fact, Congress did help the public conclude the agency is much more functional and admirable than the elected leaders responsible for overseeing it.