Lisa Page and Peter Strzok: Did the FBI agents really text about forming a secret society?

Conservatives claim texts from the former Mueller team members show widespread bias in the FBI. Here's what they really say

Emily Shugerman
New York
Friday 26 January 2018 22:11
Someone types on a Samsung Electronics Galaxy Note 8 smartphone, similar to those used by the FBI
Someone types on a Samsung Electronics Galaxy Note 8 smartphone, similar to those used by the FBI

If you haven’t been on the internet lately, you’d be forgiven for thinking “the texts” was the name of some new millennial boy band.

If you’ve been anywhere near a computer or iPhone, however, you likely know that “the texts” refers to hundreds of recently released messages exchanged by two FBI agents working on the Special Counsel investigation into Donald Trump’s possible ties to Russia.

The messages set off a firestorm on the right, with conservatives claiming they contain evidence of everything from biased FBI agents to the existence of a secret society within the agency. But what’s really contained in these texts, and what do they mean? Keep reading for everything you need to know.

What are the texts?

“The texts” is shorthand for the text messages exchanged by FBI agent Peter Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page over the last two years. The two briefly worked on special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible Trump campaign collusion with Russia. They also reportedly engaged in an extramarital affair.

A number of the messages exchanged before the election contain anti-Trump, pro-Clinton sentiments – including several where Mr Strzok calls the President an “idiot”. Many of the texts were exchanged while Mr Strzok was working on an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server.

Mr Strzok was removed from the Mueller investigation in June of last year, after the messages were discovered. Ms Page left several weeks earlier for unrelated reasons, according to the Justice Department.

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How did they come to light?

Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department Inspector General, discovered the texts during a review of the Clinton email investigation last year. The Justice Department handed over almost 400 of the messages to Congress that December.

Earlier this month, however, the Justice Department said that another batch of texts – those exchanged between 14 December, 2016, and 17 May, 2017 – had been lost due to a technical glitch. The five-month period of time included the day former national security adviser Michael Flynn was fired, and ended the day the special counsel was appointed.

After a flurry of condemnation from conservatives, Mr Horowitz announced this week that his office had recovered the texts via “forensic tools”. The Inspector General said in a letter to Congressional leaders that he would provide copies of the messages to the Justice Department, and would not object if the Department turned them over to Congress.

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What are the conspiracy theories around them?

Conservatives leapt on the first batch of texts – in which Mr Strzok called Mr Trump and “idiot” and Ms Page called him a “loathsome human” – as evidence of anti-Trump bias in the FBI and Mr Mueller’s team.

But when the Justice Department announced it had lost five months’ worth of the pairs’ text messages, the allegations of “bias” turned to cries of “coverup”.

“Are we really supposed to believe that the FBI simply lost text messages from that important time frame? This is like Watergate but far worse,” Fox News host Sean Hannity told his viewers. “This reeks of law-breaking, it reeks of conspiracy, and it reeks of obstruction of justice.”

Even Mr Trump weighed in, calling the missing texts "one of the biggest stories in a long time”.

"The FBI now says it is missing five months worth of lovers Strzok-Page texts," he tweeted, "perhaps 50,000, and all in prime time. Wow!"

Senator Ron Johnson, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, even suggested that one of the texts alluded the the existence of a “secret society” inside the FBI. Mr Johnson refused to publicly release the full message, but claimed a “whistleblower” had corroborated his theory.

Senator Ron Johnson raised the possibility of a secret society inside the FBI

Do any of these theories have legs?

The “secret society” theory appears to be crumbling as fast as it materialised. Several news outlets gained access to the full text message this week, revealing that the comment was likely made in jest.

"Are you even going to give out your calendars?” Ms Page wrote to Mr Strzok the day after Mr Trump was elected. “Seems kind of depressing. Maybe it should just be the first meeting of the secret society.”

After the full text was published, Mr Johnson admitted that it was a “real possibility” that the “secret society” reference was a joke.

The Justice Department, meanwhile, has attempted to dispel theories of an agency-endorsed cover-up. The agency said the “lost” messages – the ones re-discovered by Mr Horowitz –went missing while the FBI was upgrading its Samsung 7 phones.

In a letter to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, the agency said that the phones, "did not capture or store text messages due to misconfiguration issues related to rollouts, provisioning, and software upgrades that conflicted with the FBI's collection capabilities”.

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Why is the right so focused on these messages?

Conservatives claim that these texts show anti-Trump bias – and even possible anti-Trump conspiracies – within the very offices tasked with investigating him and his election rival.

Right-wing pundits have long claimed that the FBI investigation into Ms Clinton’s email server was flawed. (Mr Trump even cited James Comey’s handling of the investigation when he fired his former FBI director last year.) The text messages provide the clearest evidence to date of some kind of bias within the FBI – even if it was just private messages between two employees.

The messages also come as Mr Mueller’s investigation appears to be entering the home stretch. The special counsel has spoken to members of Mr Trump’s White House – and even his family – and is now reportedly seeking to interview the President himself.

According to Democrats, the outcry over the text messages is just an attempt to undermine Mr Mueller’s team, and to distract from whatever conclusion he puts forward.

“Ever since special counsel Mueller was appointed, Republicans and the right-wing media have been desperate to distract the nation from his investigation,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said on Thursday. “...That political smear campaign has now bled into a spiralling and delusional attack on the FBI itself.”

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