WASHINGTON, D.C. – While much of the nation turned its attention to the 3-day government shutdown over the weekend, members of Congress were stunned to find out that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has lost about five months’ worth of text messages between two staffers under congressional investigation. The controversy triggered a Department of Justice investigation announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday.
The two FBI staffers, agent Peter Strzok and lawyer Lisa Page, worked on probes into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails and possible collusion between Russia and President Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Congressional investigators have focused on them in recent weeks after learning the two had exchanged more than 50,000 texts, many of them anti-Trump, on their work-issued cell phones during the time they were assigned to the cases.
Republicans have said earlier batches of texts, which referred to Trump as an “idiot” and a “loathsome human,” raised concerns of bias against Trump and favorable treatment for Clinton. Some messages alluded to a “secret society” within the bureau and seemed to indicate that Clinton would not be charged months before that decision was supposedly made. In May, FBI Director James Comey decided not to recommend criminal charges in connection with the probe into her use of a private email system while she was secretary of state.
Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, who chairs the Senate Homeland Security Committee, says the FBI reported a “technical problem” that failed to record messages between them from mid-December 2016 through mid-May of 2017. That time includes Trump’s inauguration, the release of the Fusion GPS dossier, the Michael Flynn investigation, the firing of James Comey and other key parts of the 2017 timeline. The recorded text messages pick back up on May 17, when Meuller was appointed to the Russia investigation.
“I am pleased to hear that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is going to launch an investigation into what happened to those texts, and I hope they are uncovered … They illustrate a conspiracy on the part of some people and we want to know a lot more about that,” said Republican Representative Bob Goodlatte in an interview with Fox News Channel.
A spokesman for the FBI and a spokeswoman for the Justice Department declined to comment, but Strzok has been reassigned and Page left the Meuller team earlier in 2017.
“The loss of records from this period is concerning because it is apparent from other records that Mr. Strzok and Ms. Page communicated frequently about the investigation,” Johnson wrote in a response letter to the FBI.
Johnson asked that FBI Director Chris Wray follow up with more details about the scope of the lost records, whether other bureau phones had “technical problems,” and to tell the committee whether it has conducted searches of their non-government issued devices.
On Tuesday, Congressional investigators say they have lost trust in the FBI and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was interviewed by the bureau’s team investigating claims of Russian collusion, said they will leave “no stone unturned” to find out what happened to the missing data.
While revelations and investigations on the lost texts were unfolding on Capitol Hill over the past few days, the majority of the nation and Congress were focused on the government shutdown. On Friday, Senate Democrats refused to vote for a Continuing Resolution or spending bill to keep the federal government operating, holding out for a deal on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. After public criticism that military and other federal employees are furloughed in a shutdown, Democrats relented and supported a measure to keep the government open until February 8.
While the spending bill passed the Senate 81-18, Sen. Richard Burr, Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, spoke objecting to a provision inserted into the “must-pass” bill that he said would strip Congress of its authority to oversee some White House spending on intelligence. Burr, and vice-chair Mark Warner (D-VA), called the provision “troublesome” speaking on the Senate floor as the spending bill was headed for a vote on Monday.
“We want every tool in our basket that we can to give the American people the assurance that we know exactly what’s going on, and that we are at least in agreement that (intelligence operations) proceed forward, not that they have a free rein, Burr said.
The committee chair asked that the language be replaced, but it was not, and the bill was signed.
Now, with a new deadline two weeks away, the missing texts are garnering more attention. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) tweeted Tuesday, “This is a ‘dog ate my homework’ level excuse. Americans deserve to know if there was rampant anti-Trump bias at the FBI, and certainly if there was an effort to cover it up. We need a second special counsel. “