- President Donald Trump’s allies have latched onto recent revelations that the FBI failed to preserve five months of text messages exchanged by FBI employees Peter Strzok and Lisa Page.
- Strzok was ousted from special counsel Robert Mueller’s team after it emerged that he sent politically charged texts to Page during the 2016 election.
- Experts say the latest Strzok-Page revelations are the result of a routine process at the DOJ and serve as little more than political noise.
President Donald Trump’s allies have embarked on a fresh wave of criticism of the FBI after the Department of Justice revealed that the bureau did not preserve text messages exchanged between two employees during a key time period in the Russia probe, according to a letter from Republican Sen. Ron Johnson to FBI director Christopher Wray.
FBI counterintelligence veteran Peter Strzok was ousted from special counsel Robert Mueller’s team last July after the Department of Justice’s inspector general discovered that Strzok had exchanged politically charged texts with FBI lawyer Lisa Page, with whom he was reportedly having an extramarital affair.
The DOJ is in the process of turning over the texts to congressional investigators, and it most recently handed 384 pages of texts to the committee. But Stephen Boyd, the assistant attorney general for legislative affairs, said in a January 19 letter to Johnson that due to a technical glitch, the FBI’s system was not able to preserve messages between Strzok and Page that were sent between December 16, 2016 and May 17, 2017.
Johnson, who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, said in his letter to Wray, which was sent on January 20, that it was “concerning” that the bureau had not retained messages sent during that time period. He said “it is apparent from other records that Mr. Strzok and Ms. Page communicated frequently about the investigation.”
‘The time for a second special counsel is now’
The developments were quickly weaponized by Trump’s congressional and media loyalists, many of whom have pointed to Strzok’s and Page’s messages as evidence of anti-Trump bias and political corruption within the FBI, DOJ, and Mueller’s team.
“First the IRS destroyed emails pivotal to our investigation of their political. Now the FBI ‘failed to preserve’ texts between Peter Strzok & Lisa Page following the ’16 election,” tweeted Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, who sits on the House Judiciary and Oversight committees. “The time for a second special counsel is now.”
“FBI ‘Loses’ Five Months of Text Messages Between Anti-Trump Agents,” blared a headline from the pro-Trump conspiracy website, Infowars.
Republican Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs released a statement Monday calling the DOJ’s revelation “outrageous, but not surprising.”
“Peter Strzok and Lisa Page believed that then-candidate Donald Trump was a threat to this country and appeared to be taking steps, as sworn members of law enforcement, to subvert the will of the American people,” Biggs said. “Now, it seems that many of their text messages may have suspiciously disappeared.”
Cybersecurity expert Matt Tait, who used to serve as an information-security specialist at Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, pointed out that the FBI’s failure to preserve the text messages was likely the result of a routine process that began when DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz started a review of the Hillary Clinton email investigation immediately following the November 2016 election.
Horowitz said in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee in December that while conducting a review of the handling of the Clinton email probe, the OIG came across the politically charged texts. The OIG subsequently asked the FBI to turn over all text messages the two exchanged up until November 30, 2016, by which point the Clinton investigation had ended.
The FBI produced the text messages eight months later, on July 20, 2017, per the letter. Upon reviewing the messages, Horowitz said he met with Mueller and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on July 27, 2017 to inform them of what his office had discovered. Strzok was ousted from Mueller’s team the next day.
The OIG then asked the FBI to turn over all text messages that were sent from November 2016 onward. But Tait wrote on Twitter that the DOJ had switched to a different internal system in November 2016 – and as a result, a batch of Strzok-Page texts had not been preserved. Moreover, the FBI was not obligated to preserve the messages, because it had only initially been asked to do so with messages up until November 30, 2016.
Johnson’s letter, as well as the Justice Department’s, don’t address text messages exchanged past May 17, 2017, the day Mueller was appointed. Former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Cramer said one possibility was that the DOJ could have asserted privilege over the messages because it was after Strzok started working on Mueller’s team.
“That is possible since it could impact Mueller’s investigation” and be “potentially relevant as to witness’ bias,” he added.
Former federal prosecutor Patrick Cotter said that if the texts relate to the grand jury’s activities – like internal discussions about who to subpoena and information gleaned from witness interviews – then government lawyers and agents are prohibited from disclosing those details. While it’s not the same as asserting privilege, he added, “it is citing a legal requirement that makes the type of disclosure in question illegal.”
A pivotal period in the Trump-Russia timeline
- Thomson Reuters
The December 2016-May 2017 time period between which the FBI did not save the texts saw a slew of critical developments in the Russia investigation.
Among other things:
- Transition team member and eventual national security adviser Michael Flynn lied to the FBI about his Russia contacts and later resigned;
- Trump asked then-FBI director James Comey to let go of the bureau’s Flynn investigation one day after he resigned;
- Trump campaign foreign-policy adviser George Papadopoulos misled the FBI about his conversations with Russia-linked individuals;
- Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the investigation after it emerged that he did not disclose his Russia contacts to Congress;
- Comey was fired;
- Finally, Mueller was appointed special counsel.
Several of those developments are key facets of Mueller’s investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow to tilt the 2016 race in his favor, and whether Trump sought to obstruct justice when he fired Comey, who was overseeing the investigation at the time.
Conservatives and political commentators who have been critical of the Russia probe pointed to those events while amplifying their calls for the Strzok-Page texts from that time period to be found and released.
But experts characterized the latest controversy as little more than a political distraction that doesn’t alter evidence.
“I guess I’d ask how the existence of content of emails between two people at the FBI could possibly change any of the facts of the events,” said Cotter, who has worked with members of Mueller’s team in the past. “What Flynn said matters; the circumstances of the resignation matters; Sessions’ actions, the facts surrounding Comey’s firing and Mueller’s appointment, all those facts matter.”
He added: “What two people at the FBI not directly involved in any of these events said to each other does not matter,” and while Trump and his allies may be interested in finding out what Strzok and Page said to one another, “it hardly would be evidence that had any admissibility or relevance to the Mueller investigation or an eventual grand jury’s decision regarding that evidence.”
Cramer largely agreed.
“Things like this do not impact the evidence or facts,” he said. “They do, however, feed the narrative being driven by the White House and Trump’s allies.”