WASHINGTON ― Last week, a story by The Hill’s John Solomon set off another firestorm in the conservative media about the ongoing special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. The article, which was linked to by The Drudge Report and aggregated by sites across the right-wing internet before being prominently featured on Sean Hannity’s Fox show, fit nicely into a theory about the FBI that some members of Congress and President Donald Trump have been pushing to undermine Robert Mueller’s Russia probe.
Stay with us, because this gets a bit bizarre. The theory Trump and others have been pushing insinuates that Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, two current FBI employees who were having an affair, were at the heart of an FBI conspiracy against Trump during the 2016 election campaign. Adherents of this theory believe that the couple’s 2016 texts criticizing Trump ― which were recovered from their government cellphones, provided to Congress and shared with some reporters ― prove they were out to get the then-candidate.
This doesn’t make a lot of sense on its face. Most of the information that came out of the bureau during the election was damaging to Hillary Clinton, not Trump. And Page, an FBI lawyer, and Strzok, a top counterintelligence agent who was removed from Mueller’s probe in July, exchanged texts slamming politicians and officials of all ideological stripes, not just Trump.
But the idea that Strzok and Page were secretly working against Trump during the 2016 campaign has spread like a rumor in a middle school anyway. And since early last month, critics of the special counsel investigation have cited the couple’s texts to suggest that the special counsel probe was compromised or should be shut down.
The president tweeted about the agents last month. And in an interview on Thursday, Trump even made an extraordinary (and unfounded) accusation: that Strzok’s texts amounted to treason.
So when Solomon — a longtime Washington journalist and frequent guest on Hannity’s program — reported last week that Congress was looking into whether Strzok and Page had leaked to the news media, those working to undermine the Mueller probe lapped it up.
Solomon’s Tuesday report appeared to show that Strzok and Page had advance knowledge of an Oct. 24, 2016 Wall Street Journal article. He didn’t identify the Wall Street Journal article in question, and it is not clear whether he knew which piece triggered the couple’s texts. Although Solomon never wrote that Strzok and Page were definitively behind any anti-Trump leaks, the news that Congress was investigating them and that they had advance knowledge of an article was enough for pundits in the conservative media to jump to conclusions.
The Hill report was used as fodder for a narrative that Trump-hating FBI agents had leaked information to hurt the then-Republican candidate. Front Page Mag and One America News used sensational headlines, referencing “Hillary’s FBI allies” and the “deep state’s” efforts to undermine Trump. Rush Limbaugh told his listeners that “Peter Strzok and Lisa Page are two of the deep state sources planting lies and false stories in the Wall Street Journal and other places.”
What HuffPost Found
HuffPost’s investigation found a big problem with all of this: There’s just no evidence that Page and Strzok were leaking information to undermine Trump. It’s clear that neither were fans of the then-candidate, but there’s nothing wrong or illegal about FBI employees privately discussing their political views.
Yes, the couple’s text messages, which HuffPost reviewed, do suggest that Page, at least, may have spoken to reporters. But they offer no information about whether those conversations with reporters were authorized within the bureau, as such conversations can be. And to the extent the messages suggest Page may have been speaking to reporters, they don’t suggest that those conversations damaged, or were intended to damage, Trump.
Three key facts about the agents’ text messages cast serious doubt on the idea that Strzok and Page were anti-Trump leakers:
The Oct. 24, 2016, story that Strzok and Page discussed soon after it posted was damaging to Clinton and the FBI, not Trump. If Strzok and Page had leaked it (and there’s no good evidence they did), that fact would undermine the entire premise of the Republican attacks on them.
They expressed dismay at the fallout from the Oct. 24 Journal article.
They exchanged texts critical of unauthorized leaks from within the FBI and within the Justice Department.
Solomon told HuffPost he was not authorized to speak and does not comment on his reporting. He may simply have been unaware of these three facts when he published his story. But they provide crucial context to an incomplete narrative that has been bouncing around the right-wing echo chamber all week. Taken as a whole, Strzok and Page’s text messages don’t indicate a partisan political effort to undermine Trump — they paint a picture of two people whose chief ideological commitment was to the power and independence of the FBI, not any particular politicians.
The story Strzok and Page knew about in advance hurt Clinton, not Trump
The subject of the article Strzok and Page were discussing in their text messages is important. Both FBI employees had knowledge of federal investigations surrounding both Clinton and Trump. If they really wanted to harm the Trump campaign, they had a readily available option: They could leak facts about the FBI’s investigation into, as Strzok wrote in one text, the “PERVASIVE CONNECTIONS” between the Trump campaign and Russia. At the time, the bureau hadn’t publicly acknowledged an investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia, and stories published around that time cast doubt on whether the FBI would turn up anything significant.
But the Wall Street Journal article Strzok and Page discussed that night wasn’t about Russia, or damaging to Trump. Exactly the opposite: the article raised the suggestion that the FBI was going too easy on Clinton in its investigation of her use of a private email server.
Although The Hill did not specify which Oct. 24 article the congressional investigators were referencing, the timing and content of Strzok and Page’s texts, combined with internal FBI emails released last year, point to one story in particular: “Clinton Ally Aided Campaign of FBI Official’s Wife,” published on the Journal’s website the evening before. Multiple sources familiar with the story and the texts confirmed this is, in fact, the story the couple was discussing.
The article suggested that Strzok and Page’s boss, FBI Deputy director Andrew McCabe, had a conflict of interest in handling the investigation into Clinton’s emails because McCabe’s wife had previously run for a state legislative seat in Virginia as a Democrat and had taken campaign money from groups associated with Virginia’s then-governor, Terry McAuliffe, a longtime Clinton ally. (FBI documents released last week showed that McCabe followed bureau recusal rules and had no role in the Russia investigation until months after his wife lost her race.)
Strzok and Page started texting soon after the story went up.
“Article is out, but hidden behind paywall so can’t read it,” Page texted that evening.
“Wsj? Boy, that was fast?...” Strzok responded. Here’s the full exchange in question, as reproduced by HuffPost:
How Strzok and Page knew about the story in advance
The mere fact that Strzok and Page seemed to know about the Journal story in advance does not prove they leaked it (or explain why, if they are such liberals, they would leak a story that suggested their boss was mishandling the investigation into Trump’s opponent because he is married to a Democrat). Reporters almost always reach out to the FBI press shop to seek a comment or give a heads up about a story they’re working on or about to publish. Word can spread fast, especially among plugged-in officials in Washington. If a major newspaper is about to publish a damaging report about your boss, it’s reasonable to assume you might have heard something.
In this case, we know for a fact that a large number of officials within the FBI knew the WSJ story was coming before it appeared online and that they had been working to shape the story. Internal FBI emails disclosed late last year in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request showed that hours before the story published, the head of the FBI’s press shop told McCabe he’d talk with the reporter on background. “If [the reporter] is actually pushing to get this out today (which may be bs) we need you to contact him asap,” McCabe wrote earlier in the day on Sunday, before the story was published.
When the story was posted, one unnamed FBI official wrote that they were “appalled” by a piece they contended left out key facts. “Sucks pretty much. Buckle in,” McCabe wrote at 8:33 p.m. that evening, after reading the piece. “It’s going to get rough.” FBI officials quickly organized a set of talking points to respond to future inquires on the story.
In the texts, Strzok says he wants to send the story to “the team” that night instead of waiting until the next morning ― he doesn’t want to “sit” on it and “let them hear from someone else.” Page, who worked closely with McCabe, wants him to hold off. They fight. “WHAT THE F DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE TO ANYONE ON THE TEAM?” Page writes. “Is there some investigative stop to take? Some mitigation measure?”
Early the next morning, McCabe himself sent the story to several officials, writing that he wanted them to “see it from me first” and apologizing for any stress it may cause them. The officials in the bureau appeared to have his back. “Hang in there, we are all behind you!” one person wrote in response.
How Strzok and Page reacted to the story — and what really leaked
There’s an even better reason to believe Strzok and Page didn’t leak the McCabe article: They were mad about its fallout. A few days after the Oct. 24 texts, Strzok messaged Page again — to complain about a very similar article in another newspaper.
“Hit piece on Andy from VA GOP in Hampton newspaper,” Strzok wrote to Page on Oct. 26, a probable reference to a Virginian-Pilot follow-up to the Journal story. “That sucks,” Page replied minutes later.
There’s more context to consider, too. The world was a different place when Strzok and Page exchanged their texts. The bureau was in a defense posture, absorbing criticism about its handling of the Clinton probe from both Democrats and Republicans. At the time, most people — including people at the top levels of the FBI — believed that Clinton would win the 2016 election, but anticipated that Republicans in Congress would be scrutinizing the Clinton probe for years. A few months earlier, then-FBI director James Comey — in a speech Strzok helped edit — had taken the unusual step of announcing the outcome of a FBI investigation into Clinton. And the Wall Street Journal story on McCabe came out several days before Comey informed Congress that the FBI had discovered emails that may be pertinent to that Clinton investigation, which set off another political firestorm Clinton has since partially blamed for her loss.
Both Strzok and Page were clearly frustrated by articles critical of Comey that were most likely originating from disgruntled agents in the FBI’s New York field office. Strzok said in one message that he got “really angry” reading an Oct. 6 New York Post report alleging that FBI agents were “ready to revolt over the cozy Clinton probe,” which he said illustrated there “are a bunch of really ignorant people out there blinded by their politics.” In a separate exchange in November, Strzok said one former FBI official who was criticizing Comey was getting “incorrect information” from “agents who don’t know about things.”
There’s some evidence in the texts that suggests that Page, at least, might’ve talked to a reporter. But they don’t tell us whether those interactions were sanctioned with the FBI or whether any information was improperly disclosed. In one exchange just before the election, she recounts talking to the FBI’s chief of staff about a Washington Post story on the Clinton investigation. “Time line article in the post [sic] is super specific and not good,” she wrote. “Doesn’t make sense because I didn’t have specific information to give.”
Another exchange may indicate she participated in an article that reflected poorly on Democrats, not Trump. On Oct. 29, 2016, not long before the election, the two FBI employees exchanged a series of texts about a Washington Post article they considered anti-FBI. The Washington Post article, “Justice officials warned FBI that Comey’s decision to update Congress was not consistent with department policy,” suggested that Comey went rogue when he told Congress that investigators were looking into emails found on former Congressman Anthony Weiner’s laptop in the course of a separate investigation. The Post story “was all” one person (whom HuffPost has identified as a now-former senior official in the Justice Department), Strzok speculated in a text to Page. “The whole tone is anti-Bu,” he added, in a reference to the FBI. “Just a tiny bit from us.”
The reply to that text is where we see the most evidence that either of them interacted with a reporter: “Makes me feel WAY less bad about throwing him under the bus in the forthcoming CF article,” Page replied, referring to that same Justice Department official.
The next day, The Wall Street Journal ran an explosive story about what FBI officials saw as attempts by senior political appointees in the Justice Department to rein in the FBI’s investigation into one particularly prominent “CF”: the Clinton Foundation.
That story and follow-up coverage in other outlets added to the perception that Clinton allies in the Justice Department had tried, perhaps unethically, to stop the FBI’s probe in order to help Clinton. Specifically, The Wall Street Journal reported that an unnamed senior Justice Department official had called the FBI in August 2016 to ask why it was still investigating the foundation during election season. The senior Justice Department official, one source “close to McCabe” told the Journal, had been “very pissed off.”
HuffPost’s recreation of the text message exchange illustrated in this story has been updated to include a line inadvertently left out of the initial version, and to add in emojis that had originally been excluded.