This is yet another chapter in the open conservative case against Peter Strzok and Lisa Page.
On Wednesday morning, President Donald Trump tweeted this, in all caps: “NEW FBI TEXTS ARE BOMBSHELLS!”
Here’s what he’s referring to: Fox News reported on Wednesday that FBI agent Lisa Page told her lover Peter Strzok, also an FBI agent, in a September 2016 text message that Obama wanted “to know everything we’re doing.” The two FBI officials are viewed by conservatives as the prime examples of alleged widespread anti-Trump bias among federal law enforcement, and have been targets of Republicans before.
Conservatives — including the president— quickly pounced on the texts. They said the texts were further evidence of the anti-Trump conspiracy during the Obama administration to minimize the probe into Hillary Clinton’s emails.
Asked on Fox & Friends to interpret the text, House Judiciary Committee member Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) said that “it means the president [Obama] wants to know what they’re doing to stop Trump.” Some conservatives also believe the effort to depose Trump continues within special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, which, among other things, looks into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
The problem: We already know none of that is true.
First, CNN obtained emails in January that showed Strzok co-wrote the first draft of the letter that Comey sent to Congress in October 2016, announcing that the FBI was reopening an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails after finding new messages on Anthony Weiner’s laptop. That letter set off a political firestorm just 11 days before the presidential election and hurt Clinton at the polls — so much so that it may have swung the election in favor of Trump.
And second, Fox News has the timeline all wrong. As Judd Legum at ThinkProgress noted on Wednesday, Comey closed the Clinton email investigation on July 5, 2016 — nearly two months before Page’s supposedly explosive text. On top of that, the newly revealed texts show that the FBI didn’t learn about the new Clinton emails later found on Anthony Weiner’s computer until September 28, 2016 — weeks after Page’s message to Strzok.
This means it’s actually unclear what Obama wanted to know, and not the nefarious move Fox News alleges. And it also continues the conservative campaign to discredit Mueller before his probe ends.
That invites the question: Why have the texts become such a big deal?
The answer lies perhaps in the timing of the Fox News piece, which comes just days after a Republican effort to make look Trump look good failed — and days before Trump could squash a Democratic effort that could make him look bad.
This could all be part of a distraction from a big Trump decision
Last week, House Intelligence Committee Chair Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) released a memo — with Trump’s approval — alleging that US law enforcement abused its powers by wrongly spying on the Trump campaign during the 2016 presidential election.
The problem for Trump is that the memo was a dud. It had no proof that the FBI is biased against Trump, no proof of abuse of surveillance powers by the FBI, and no proof that the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia is fundamentally flawed. The memo was a piece of partisan spin, and not a particularly compelling one at that.
But now Trump must decide whether to approve the release of another memo — this one drafted by the committee’s top Democrat, California Rep. Adam Schiff. The committee unanimously voted on Monday to give Trump five days to decide to release Schiff’s memo, which is designed to offer a point-by-point rebuttal of Nunes’s attacks on the FBI.
That’s awkward for Trump. If he makes the Schiff memo public, the president opens up himself and Republicans to criticism that the Nunes memo purposely left out information to insinuate the FBI is biased against the president and Mueller’s probe. But if Trump keeps the memo private, he may receive harsh rebukes for burying a potentially damaging document.
So the Page text story is a perfect distraction. Worse, it could serve as justification for Trump not to release the Schiff memo — thereby keeping hidden what could potentially hurt him.
This all fits into a grander conservative attack on the federal law enforcement
This isn’t the first time conservatives went after Page and Strzok.
Last year, some of their texts provided even more ammo to the FBI, Justice Department, and Mueller’s critics. Strzok, a self-identified “conservative Dem,” texted Page that Trump was an “idiot.” He also wanted Clinton to defeat Trump in the election — in another message, he wrote: “God Hillary should win 100,000,000 — 0.”
And conservatives also point to Strzok’s August 15, 2016, text to Page. “I want to believe the path you threw out for consideration in Andy’s office” — likely referencing to former FBI Deputy Director McCabe — “that there’s no way he gets elected — but I’m afraid we can’t take that risk. It’s like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you’re 40.” It’s unclear what Strzok exactly meant by “insurance policy” or what “path” Page outlined, but some conservatives feel this was a clear indication that Strzok wanted to find a way to make sure Trump lost the election.
“This goes to intent to action,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), a leading anti-Mueller Congress member, told reporters in December. “That to me is big.”
Strzok remains controversial because he was one of the top people investigating Clinton’s use of a private email server. He allegedly changed the draft of how Comey publicly described that usage from “grossly negligent” to “extremely careless.” That change had the effect of softening Comey’s criticism of Clinton at a particularly sensitive time in the 2016 campaign. Mueller removed Strzok from his investigative team in July, and Strzok is now under investigation by the Justice Department’s internal watchdog.
But it looks like the conservative-led attack on law enforcement works for Trump’s base. According to a Reuters/IPSOS poll released on Monday evening, a huge majority of Republicans — 73 percent — believed that “members of the FBI and Department of Justice are working to delegitimize Trump through politically motivated investigations.”
Again, there’s no evidence so far of such a massive, sweeping conspiracy theory — not in the Nunes memo, not in text messages between FBI employees released to the public, not anywhere.
But it’s a theme that’s been repeated again and again by the president, conservatives, and Fox News — and apparently, most Republicans have gotten the memo.