GOP fuels ‘secret society’ talk with FBI text messages

Republicans are floating the idea that FBI and Department of Justice (DOJ) officials formed a “secret society” that held meetings in which they plotted to undermine President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he doesn't want to use 'adversary' to describe Russia Comey urges Americans to vote for Democrats in midterms Roby wins Alabama GOP runoff, overcoming blowback from Trump criticism MORE and his administration.

Two FBI agents accused by Republicans of harboring anti-Trump bias exchanged text messages, one of which mentioned a “secret society” — possibly as a private joke.

The message, first described by House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Trey GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdyDem lawmaker calls on House to subpoena American translator from Trump-Putin meeting The Hill's Morning Report — Trump isolated and denounced after Putin meeting Ryan: 'The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally' MORE (R-S.C.) and Rep. John RatcliffeJohn Lee RatcliffeHouse GOP questions FBI lawyer for second day Former FBI lawyer Lisa Page gets closed-door grilling from House Republicans 5 takeaways from wild hearing with controversial FBI agent MORE (R-Texas), lacks context and the lawmakers have admitted that they don't know for sure what it means.

But the term has caught fire in conservative media and Republicans have promoted the text as a potentially explosive development, implying it confirms suspicions that the FBI gave Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonOvernight Defense: Trump tries to quell Russia furor | GOP looks to reassure NATO | Mattis open to meeting Russian counterpart Dem pollster: GOP women have a more difficult time winning primary races than Dems Mellman: (Mis)interpreting elections MORE an election-year pass but remain hell-bent on bringing charges against Trump. 

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Liberals claim Republicans are selectively leaking out-of-context text messages, irresponsibly fueling an elaborate conspiracy theory meant to undermine special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE’s investigation into whether Trump campaign officials coordinated with Russia to influence the 2016 election.

The single message, sent the day after Trump was elected, was from senior FBI lawyer Lisa Page to Peter Strzok, the top counterintelligence officer at the FBI and a key figure in the bureau’s past investigations into Trump and Clinton.

“Are you even going to give out your calendars?,” Page asks Strzok. “Seems kind of depressing. Maybe it should just be the first meeting of the secret society.”

Strzok and Page were having an extramarital affair. Both served briefly on Mueller’s special counsel investigative team but were removed last year.

Strzok interviewed Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, as well as key witnesses in the FBI’s investigation into Clinton’s handling of classified material.

Previously released text messages between Strzok and Page found them disparaging Trump; seeming to contradict former FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyComey urges Americans to vote for Democrats in midterms Trump calls Brennan ‘a very bad person’ after Putin criticism Buck Wild: 'Is President Trump paranoid or is the Deep State out to get him?' MORE’s claims about his handling of the Clinton investigation; and appearing to discuss ways they could limit Trump once he became president.

But Democrats say Republicans are selectively leaking the messages in a way that is misleading. They argue that all FBI agents have personal opinions and that it doesn’t preclude them from doing their jobs. Text messages between two agents does not implicate an entire agency, which relies on the work of scores of career prosecutors and agents acting independently to push investigations forward, the bureau's defenders say.

Furthermore, Democrats note that Mueller acted appropriately by removing Strzok and Page from his team. There is nothing in the text messages that taints Mueller’s independent investigation, Democrats say.

Even more broadly, Democrats question how the FBI could be at the center of an anti-Trump conspiracy given Comey’s role in reopening an investigation of Clinton’s emails little more than a week before the election — a decision Democrats slammed after her loss to Trump.

Republicans say the text messages suggest a deep political bias at the FBI that might explain the decision not to charge Clinton for carelessly handling classified material.

GOP lawmakers also say the text messages are evidence that the investigation into allegations that Trump campaign officials had improper contacts with Moscow was politically motivated from the start.

“This text that Johnny Radcliffe found last night about this secret society — now, I have no clue what that means because it was not the phraseology I used, but it's the day after the election,” Gowdy said on Fox News. “It's the same two people that were discussing a little bit later in the text the damage they had done with the Clinton investigation and how they could, quote, 'fix it and make it right.' That is a level of bias that is stunning among law enforcement officers.”

“I'm not saying that [secret society meetings] actually happened, but when folks speak in those terms, they need to come forward to explain the context," said Ratcliffe, a former prosecutor who has emerged as a prominent new voice in the GOP’s law enforcement investigations.

Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonJuan Williams: Putin wins as GOP spins GOP senator: Harley-Davidson is right to move some production overseas GOP senator: Trump’s policies doing 'permanent damage' MORE (R-Wis.) added a new layer of intrigue when he claimed on Fox News on Tuesday night to be working with a whistleblower with knowledge of “off-site” meetings between FBI and DOJ officials.

Johnson told CNN on Wednesday that he has not been able to confirm what was said in those meetings but that Republicans would continue to investigate.

Yet even some voices on the right are skeptical about the texts.

Jonah Goldberg, writing in The National Review, said he was taking a “wait-and-see approach to all of this Strzok-Page-secret-society stuff” because “there’s just too much theatrics and chest thumping involved.”

“By all means, let’s have the appropriate investigations. Let’s have some hearings,” he wrote, given some “legitimately disturbing facts” about the FBI. At the same time, he also said there’s been an “astonishing amount of manufactured outrage, absurd dot-connecting, and near-hysteria.”

Conservative writer Erick Erickson tweeted on Wednesday that Johnson’s comments to CNN made the “whole thing sound like a clown show.”

The “secret society” text message has dominated cable news, with Trump’s allies declaring that Republicans had uncovered a smoking gun.

“The Russian investigation is being exposed as a sham,” said Fox News’s Sean Hannity, who has frequently targeted Mueller, a lifelong Republican.

The debate over the “secret society” text is the latest salvo since Trump fired Comey and Mueller was tapped to lead a special counsel investigation into Russia's election meddling.

Republicans were once staunch allies and defenders of the historically GOP-bent FBI.

Now, Republicans on Capitol Hill are ramping up investigations and escalating feuds with the bureau, casting it as a corrupt cabal of politically motivated agents conspiring to overthrow Trump.

Democrats are arguing that it’s deeply irresponsible to question the credibility of independent investigators at the FBI and DOJ.

Republicans have gained some traction in recent days by releasing small tranches of text messages between Strzok and Page, which some Democrats and former FBI officials acknowledge reveal personal bias. 

In one text, Page calls Trump an “idiot.” In others, Strzok and Page express astonishment that Trump would win the GOP nomination and say it gives added “pressure” to wrap up the Clinton investigation.

Lawmakers also say they will call Comey back to Capitol Hill to clarify his claim, made under oath, that he didn’t decide not to charge Clinton until after he interviewed her. Republicans say one of Page’s texts appears to contradict that claim.

This week, Republicans were newly infuriated by the revelation that the FBI “failed to preserve” texts between Strzok and Page that were sent between December Dec. 14, 2016, to May 17, 2017 — the day Mueller was tapped to lead the special counsel investigation into Russia's election meddling.

The FBI insists that there was nothing nefarious about the lost messages — that the data was not retained because of “misconfiguration issues” related to software upgrades on the bureau’s phone devices. Reports emerged Wednesday that a large number of FBI employees lost messages around the same time due to a glitch.

The DOJ has opened an investigation into the lost messages but Trump’s GOP allies — many of whom lack confidence in Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsHomeland Security advisory council members resign over family separations: report Once a Trump critic, Ala. rep faces runoff with his support Ryan: 'The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally' MORE to aggressively pursue investigations into alleged FBI or DOJ abuses — are calling for a second special counsel.

That will have to wait for the DOJ’s inspector general Matthew Horowitz, who has a strong reputation as an independent investigator, to finish his investigation. 

Meanwhile, new battle lines are being drawn over a controversial four-page memo authored by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesFreedom Caucus lawmakers call on DOJ to probe Rosenstein allegations Indictments show the need for Mueller investigation to continue Overnight Health Care: Official defends suspending insurer payments | What Kavanaugh's nomination means for ObamaCare | Panel approves bill to halt employer mandate MORE (R-Calif.) that is said to be based on thousands of pages of intelligence stemming from a yearlong GOP investigation into the FBI.

Republicans have been enthusiastically claiming the memo is the holy grail detailing law enforcement abuses in pursuit of Trump and his inner circle.

It is believed to have new information about the FBI’s use of an anti-Trump dossier to obtain a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant targeting the Trump campaign.

The House Intelligence Committee is expected to vote next week on making the classified document public. The White House has signaled that it will not object, paving the way for the document’s release.

The FBI asked to see the document, but House Republicans have denied the request, saying it was put together based on information provided by the bureau and that lawmakers have no obligation to seek comment from the agencies they oversee.

Democrats are calling the memo GOP talking points about debunked conspiracy theories meant to discredit the FBI.

“The famous House memo is just the latest and most dangerous installment of trying to save this president’s bacon by damaging and throwing mud on a storied institution, in this case, the FBI and the Department of Justice,” Rep. Jim HimesJames (Jim) Andres HimesMembers of Congress weigh in on the great 4th of July debate: Hot dogs or hamburgers Dem rep: Nunes actions make US ‘profoundly less safe’ Dems urge Trump to reinstate top cyber post MORE (D-Conn.) said on CNN.