The growing saga over text messages sent between two FBI colleagues who briefly worked on special counsel Robert Mueller’s team took some unexpected turns Thursday, as a cache of missing messages characterized by President Donald Trump as a major scandal had been recovered and as a top Republican backed off a claim that FBI agents formed a “secret society” to undermine Trump.
Earlier this week, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., and other Republicans suggested that a months-old text message between the two FBI officials revealed that "secret society,” and Johnson said a “whistleblower” had corroborated the allegation.
But Johnson refused to publicly release the full text message, sent the day after Trump was elected in November 2016, or to characterize the “whistleblower” in any way.
On Wednesday, ABC News and other news outlets obtained copies of the relevant text message, which indicated the reference to a “secret society” may have been an inside joke.
"Are you even going to give out your calendars? Seems kind of depressing. Maybe it should just be the first meeting of the secret society," FBI lawyer Lisa Page wrote to senior FBI agent Peter Strzok, who was working on the FBI’s probe of Russian meddling in the presidential election and would later join Page for a brief period on Mueller’s team.
Thursday, in the wake of news reports quoting the fuller text message, Johnson told reporters “it’s a real possibility” that Strzok and Page cited a “secret society” in jest, and he said he’s now considering releasing more messages sent between the pair.
In addition, the top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, Thursday called on Johnson to provide more information about the “whistleblower.”
“The FBI and the people that work there put their lives on the line every day defending our country from a huge array of threats,” McCaskill said in a statement. “We deserve to see all the evidence that Chairman Johnson has in order to understand these incredibly serious allegations.”
The “secret society” text is among a large cache of messages handed over to House and Senate committees in the past two months. After recent news accounts reported that Strzok was axed from Mueller's team for sending potentially anti-Trump messages, lawmakers demanded to see the messages for themselves.
Last Friday, the Justice Department handed Johnson’s committee and other committees batch of more than 1,000 messages sent between Strzok and Page. The department had already provided lawmakers with 375 other messages, including ones in which Strzok repeatedly called Trump an “idiot.”
But that Friday the Justice Department also noted that five months’ worth of messages had gone missing from the FBI and weren’t recovered. Trump and his Republican allies called foul.
“In one of the biggest stories in a long time, the FBI now says it is missing five months worth of lovers Strzok-Page texts,” Trump tweeted on Tuesday. “Wow.”
The Justice Department said the messages disappeared due to a "technical" glitch and "misconfiguration issues" after the FBI tried to upgrade devices used by its agents in the field.
And Thursday, the Justice Department’s inspector general, which first discovered the Strzok-Page messages as part of a broader probe, said it had some – if not all – of the missing messages.
“The [inspector general’s office] has been investigating this matter and, this week, succeeded in using forensic tools to recover text messages from FBI devices, including text messages between Mr. Strzok and Ms. Page that were sent or received between December 14, 2016, and May 17, 2017,” the inspector general wrote in a letter to Congress today. “Our effort to recover any additional text messages is ongoing.”
Republican lawmakers have pounced on Strzok and Page’s messages as evidence that the FBI and special counsel probes – with Strzok's involvement – were propelled by political bias.
But in a May 2017 text message from Strzok released by Johnson Monday, Strzok expressed reticence to join Mueller's team, saying he believed "there's no big there there."
And Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has dismissed such suggestions, insisting there is nobody "better qualified for this job" than Mueller and noting "political affiliation" is not the same as political "bias."
"We recognize we have employees with political opinions. It's our responsibility to make sure those opinions do not influence their actions," Rosenstein recently told a House panel.