WASHINGTON ― For weeks, President Donald Trump and his supporters on Capitol Hill have attempted to undermine Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation by claiming that the FBI was working behind the scenes during the 2016 campaign to stop Trump from winning.
To back up this theory, the president’s allies have cited text messages exchanged by Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, two FBI employees who worked on the Hillary Clinton email investigation and had an affair. The first batch of texts, released last month, revealed that neither was a big fan of Trump or an array of Democratic politicians and figures. An additional set of text messages sent to Congress in recent days has set off a new round of stories.
For some Republicans, the latest texts confirm everything they’ve always suspected.
“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,” Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) said in a press release Monday.
The idea that the FBI sought to undermine Trump during the 2016 election was unlikely on its face. The bureau’s handling of the investigation into Clinton’s emails produced a slew of negative headlines for her and provided plenty of fodder for Trump and his allies to attack their Democratic opponent. And if FBI officials really were trying to get Clinton elected, they did a terrible job: Trump won.
But one previously unreported Strzok-Page exchange, from the eve of Election Day, does even more to undercut the GOP’s “deep state” narrative. In it, the two FBI employees discuss James Kallstrom, a former bureau official who headed the FBI’s New York field office a couple of decades ago. During the 2016 campaign, he endorsed Trump, called the Clintons an “organized crime family” and was making the rounds on TV airing what he said were complaints from within the bureau about then-FBI Director James Comey’s management of the Clinton probe.
The bureau had been taking a lot of heat from the right for its handling of the Clinton investigation, and much of the criticism seemed to be emerging from the FBI field office in New York. According to a later report in Vanity Fair, Comey’s concerns about a leak from that office even played a role in his decision to send a letter about the Clinton investigation to Congress 11 days before the election, which set off a media firestorm that Clinton later blamed for her Electoral College loss.
Strzok and Page’s election eve texts discuss a conversation Strzok had with a woman both of them knew. The woman, whom HuffPost has been told does not work at the FBI, was critical of the bureau’s handling of the Clinton investigation. She thought the bureau should’ve publicly undermined people like Kallstrom and gone after agents who were leaking to the press. Here’s the exchange, which was included in the first set of text messages that the Justice Department provided to Congress last month:
Page: Oh god █████
Page: What is she saying?
Page: She does realize you’ve been in EVERY conversation that has been had about this case, right?
Strzok: That we should have gone on the record saying Kallstrom and others are not credible (which may be valid), but then saying we could pull his tolls if we wanted to. Because she knows all about our policy regarding investigations of members of the media.
Strzok: Yes but she’s an expert who knows everything. I’m telling you, it’s wildly infuriating. She has good points but then assumes wildly impossible understanding of things to make groundless assertions.
Strzok: Told her twice she was either calling me stupid or a liar.
Page: Uh, what crimes are we investigating? And I’m sorry, that’s a terrible idea. Going to war with the formers?
Page: Jesus, █████. I’m sorry. That would make me blind with rage.>
Strzok: Leaking information about ongoing investigations. Which is incorrect information. By agents who don’t know about things talking to him. See? That’s the thing. Her initial point, that we should have gone after the agents talking harder and sooner, is not unreasonable. But the subsequent discussion falls into uniformed assertions.
“Pulling his tolls” is FBI-speak for using an administrative subpoena to obtain phone records. If they were part of a “deep state” operation to keep Trump from being elected, weaponizing government power to target a critic of the FBI and root out anti-Clinton forces within the bureau would’ve been a pretty solid move.
Yet both Page and Strzok recoiled at this suggestion. Strzok found the criticism and the woman’s suggestion “wildly infuriating.” Page, an FBI lawyer, said that the criticism would’ve made her “blind with rage” and wondered what possible legal basis there could be for obtaining Kallstrom’s phone records. The texts make clear that both Strzok and Page were frustrated by stories that reflected poorly upon the FBI’s handling of the Clinton probe and elsewhere suggest that Page may have spoken with a reporter, evidently in defense of the bureau’s actions in the Clinton Foundation investigation. But in their texts on the eve of Trump’s election, both seem to recognize that obtaining phone records of a former FBI official to hunt down his anti-Clinton sources within the bureau was a pretty bad idea.
Those who believe the FBI was plotting to stop Trump from taking office have also focused on a text in which Strzok compares the investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia with an “insurance policy.” But as The Wall Street Journal reported, that text message was meant only to suggest that FBI agents couldn’t delay the investigation simply because they thought Trump was unlikely to get elected.
Still, the “deep state” theory doesn’t seem likely to die anytime soon. In a letter to Congress, the Justice Department said the FBI hadn’t retained the texts between Strzok and Page from Dec. 14, 2016, through May 17, 2017. The news that the bureau didn’t keep those messages has already churned up more anti-FBI criticism this week, with Republicans claiming to see nefarious motives.
Not long after a “Fox & Friends” segment focusing on the texts Tuesday morning, Trump tweeted about the story, inaccurately stating that the FBI had lost “perhaps 50,000” texts that Strzok and Page exchanged in five months. If that were true, the pair would have done an incredible amount of texting: more than 320 messages per day. The 50,000 figure actually refers to all of the texts between the two, over a much longer time, that the FBI found. Trump called the news “one of the biggest stories in a long time.”
It’s quite possible the missing texts will be recovered through other means, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions vowed to take disciplinary action if any wrongdoing was behind the gap.
“We will leave no stone unturned to confirm with certainty why these text messages are not now available to be produced and will use every technology available to determine whether the missing messages are recoverable from another source,” Sessions said in a statement Monday night. “If we are successful, we will update the congressional committees immediately.”
The Justice Department’s decision to allow reporters to view the text messages released last month came under scrutiny and resulted in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit seeking records about the decision. So the department is not giving reporters access to the latest batch of text messages it sent to Congress.
That means that members of Congress control which messages are revealed to the public. Republicans have recently made vague references to texts the pair reportedly exchanged the day after Trump’s election that referenced a “secret society.” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who chairs the Senate homeland security committee, focused on just a few exchanges, including one in which Strzok said the timing “looks like hell” after then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch said she would accept the recommendations of the FBI and career prosecutors in the Clinton investigation. Page sarcastically wrote that Lynch’s announcement was “a real profile in [courage], since she knows no charges will be brought.”
Meanwhile, as first reported by The Daily Beast, the FBI said that House Republicans have refused to show the bureau a copy of the memo Republican staffers prepared alleging that the bureau abused the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act during the 2016 campaign.
“The FBI has requested to receive a copy of the memo in order to evaluate the information and take appropriate steps if necessary,” FBI spokesman Andy Ames said in a statement also provided to HuffPost. “To date, the request has been declined.”
Ryan Reilly is HuffPost’s senior justice reporter, covering criminal justice, federal law enforcement and legal affairs. Have a tip? Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Signal at 202-527-9261.