By Jonathan Easley, The Hill–
Federal investigators are demanding answers from the FBI over missing text messages between agents accused of anti-Trump bias, leaving the nation’s premier law enforcement agency scrambling to defend its reputation amid an explosion of criticism from the White House, Congress and conservative media.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) has opened an investigation into how the FBI “failed to preserve” text messages sent between Peter Strzok, the FBI’s top counterintelligence officer, and Lisa Page, a senior FBI lawyer.
The FBI informed the DOJ’s inspector general this week that the data was not retained because of “misconfiguration issues” related to software upgrades on the bureau’s phone devices.
President Trump on Tuesday called the revelation “one of the biggest stories in a long time,” while White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called the development “absolutely outrageous.”
“It looks like there could have been some really inappropriate and possibly illegal behavior,” Sanders said at Tuesday’s press briefing.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has vowed to leave “no stone unturned” in finding the missing messages. GOP lawmakers are calling for a second special counsel to investigate and have floated the possibility of issuing a subpoena to the bureau’s cellphone carrier.
There is no evidence that the text messages were intentionally discarded. But the controversy creates a new vulnerability for the FBI at a time when it was already under attack from the president’s allies, who have accused the bureau of giving former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a free pass in its investigation of her handling of classified material.
The White House is publicly backing FBI Director Christopher Wray, but he has reportedly had to beat back demands from Sessions that he fire Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, whose wife once accepted political donations from former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), a Clinton ally.
And Republican lawmakers have released a trove of existing texts between Strzok and Page, both former members of special counsel Robert Mueller’s staff, in which they make disparaging remarks about Trump and appear to discuss efforts to undermine him.
“Unfortunately it gives new ammunition to those who want to take shots at the FBI but we should be clear — the FBI’s hands are not clean here,” said Ron Hosko, a former assistant director at the FBI. “You have clear evidence of bias, of substantial and unacceptable bias by some principles in these investigations, and that has to be addressed.”
Democrats are fighting back furiously at what they say is an effort by Republicans to tarnish the FBI and muddy the waters around the Russia probe.
In a Tuesday interview on MSNBC, Sen. Mark Warner (Va.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, accused Republicans of undertaking a “full-fledged attack on the credibility of the FBI.”
“I think that is a dangerous activity,” Warner said. “That doesn’t happen in a democracy, where we basically trust the integrity of our law enforcement entities.”
Democrats have accused Republicans of selectively leaking text messages between Strzok and Page in an effort to make it look like the FBI had it out for Trump and had always planned to give Clinton a pass.
And they argue that even if Strzok and Page hold strong political opinions, there is no evidence to suggest that it impacted their ability to carry out their duties as independent agents.
“All this tells us is that we have an FBI agent and an attorney with personal opinions, God forbid,” said Ned Price, a National Security Council official under former President Obama. “The question is if it influenced their work and there is nothing to date to suggest that.”
Several officials interviewed by The Hill noted the deep irony of Republicans attacking the FBI, when the GOP has long been a steadfast ally of the law enforcement community. The bureau has also long had a reputation as an agency with a Republican tilt.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the Intelligence Committee chairman who is leading the Senate’s Russia probe with Warner, notably differed from his Republican colleagues when asked about the missing text messages.
“I’m not going to read anything into it other than it may be a technical glitch at the bureau,” Burr said, according to CNN. “The fact that they have provided the rest of them certainly doesn’t show an intent to try to withhold anything.”
But Republicans by and large say they are fed up with what they view as politically motivated actions at the FBI. Strzok was part of both the Clinton and Trump investigation.
“There has to be a no holds barred investigation at the bureau and a number of people at the highest levels should be removed, including these two agents, Strzok and Page,” said Bill Barr, a former attorney general in the George H.W. Bush administration.
The missing text messages between Strzok and Page span from Dec. 14, 2016, to May 17 — the day Mueller was tapped to lead the special counsel investigation into Russia’s election meddling.
In that time, Trump was sworn-in as president, the infamous anti-Trump dossier was published online and Strzok interviewed Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.
Meanwhile, Republicans have been hammering the FBI over the texts that they’ve been able to obtain.
This week, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, released new texts in which Strzok and Page appear to say they faced “pressure” to wrap up the investigation into Clinton once it became apparent that Trump would be the GOP nominee.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) said Strzok and Page made reference to a “secret society” within the FBI and DOJ in the aftermath of Trump’s election.
Republicans also said the texts raise new questions about communication between the FBI and the DOJ at a critical juncture in the Clinton investigation.
Following a controversial meeting between former President Clinton and then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Lynch said she would follow the recommendation of then-FBI Director James Comey about whether to bring charges against Hillary Clinton. “It’s a real profile in courage, since she knows no charges will be brought,” Page says in a text.
Republicans say that text is evidence that Comey made up his mind to clear Hillary Clinton before interviewing her and that he had communicated his intentions to Lynch.
Comey has testified before Congress that he didn’t decide not to charge Hillary Clinton until after he interviewed her. Gowdy said Comey would have to come back to Capitol Hill to explain his previous testimony.
One of Trump’s lawyers, Jay Sekulow, accused Comey of perjuring himself.
“That’s a false statement,” Sekulow said Monday night on Fox News’s “The Sean Hannity Show.” “That’s a felony.”
House Republicans are calling for a second special counsel to investigate Strzok and Page and the missing text messages. Sessions has previously testified there is not enough evidence to justify a second special counsel.
For now, the probe lies with DOJ inspector general Matthew Horowitz, who has a strong reputation as an independent investigator.
If Horowitz uncovers criminal conduct, legal experts say it would then be up to Sessions to investigate on his own or to tap a new special counsel. Insiders interviewed by The Hill don’t believe Sessions would have to recuse himself from the second special counsel probe, even though he has already stepped aside from the first.
But they say it might be in Sessions’s best interests to step aside, as any DOJ investigation into the FBI’s handling of the Clinton investigation would almost certainly be attacked as politically compromised.
“He’s not disqualified from the investigation automatically, he could take a fresh look,” said Robert Ray, the former independent counsel during the Clinton administration’s Whitewater controversy. “But he may well be advised that his recusal would be prudent. Appearances matter if you want an outcome that the public is willing to accept.”