WASHINGTON ― It was hours after Donald Trump became the president-elect, and two FBI officials, like many of their fellow citizens, were flabbergasted. Peter Strzok and Lisa Page ― both of whom had worked on the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, which the former secretary of state would blame for her loss ― were worried about the future of their country and their agency.
One text that Page sent Strzok early on the morning of Nov. 9, 2016, has dominated the conservative media world this week, serving as a springboard for a Republican conspiracy theory suggesting that the nation’s premier law enforcement organization was plotting a coup against Trump within hours of his stunning victory.
“Are you even going to give out your calendars? Seems kind of depressing,” Page, a FBI lawyer, wrote in the text to Strzok from her FBI-issued phone. “Maybe it should just be the first meeting of the secret society.”
Republican lawmakers seized upon the “secret society” reference this week, claiming to see sinister motives, and it started popping up all over cable news chyrons. But, in fact, it was almost certainly a joke, a bit of gallows humor after an election that featured Russian interference.
So what was that “calendars” reference all about? Out of context, it’s a bit confusing. But the backstory is actually kind of funny. The New York Times first reported that the “calendars,” which the Times said had a “Russia theme,” were a gag gift for those working on the early Russia probe.
A source familiar with the text messages filled HuffPost in on the details. It turns out that, as a joke, Strzok had purchased calendars featuring “beefcake” photos of Vladimir Putin doing manly, tough-guy things like riding a horse.
It’s unclear precisely which Putin calendar Strzok bought for the team or whether it was from 2016 or 2017. A 2016 calendar featured photos of the Russian president in camouflage, lighting a candle for Christmas, standing next to a horse, smelling a flower, working out in a gym, hugging a dog and fishing without a shirt. A 2017 calendar, per a CNN report, was available by mid-October 2016 at kiosks around Moscow.
What’s remarkable about the “secret society” text message is that it has been available to reporters for more than a month, as it was included in a first set of texts that the Justice Department sent to Capitol Hill (and allowed reporters to view) in December. But it wasn’t picked up, even by Fox News (which had access to the texts), because it seemed like such an obvious joke.
That changed this week, when lawmakers began highlighting the one text on television.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), a prominent promoter of the “secret society” text, admitted Thursday there’s a “real possibility” that it was just a joke.
But given how the “secret society” story dominated the news for days, that was kind of like closing the barn door after the president of Russia had stripped off his shirt, jumped on top of your favorite horse, and ridden off into the sunset.
Ryan Reilly is HuffPost’s senior justice reporter, covering criminal justice, federal law enforcement and legal affairs. Have a tip? Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Signal at 202-527-9261.