Lawmakers trade partisan interpretations of whether missing files could show anti-Trump bias.
Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, the leader of the government’s watchdogs who is already probing the FBI’s conduct during the 2016 election, is now being counted on to find lost bureau text messages some lawmakers believe show unfair treatment of President Trump.
Last Friday, Horowitz’s agenda broadened when Attorney General Jeff Sessions responded to growing demands by House and Senate Republicans that Justice track down missing text messages between FBI special agents that critics say demonstrate bias among some bureau employees who have worked on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of possible links between Russia and the Trump presidential campaign.
Horowitz is also probing the FBI’s conduct under then-director James Comey in the run-up to the 2016 election when Comey made comments to lawmakers that became public about the nearly complete investigation of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s handling of emails when she was secretary of State.
The IG has clashed with the FBI in the past, seeking access to documents that the bureau said were protected under national security concerns. More recently, Horowitz told Democratic lawmakers in a letter published by Politico that the Justice Department did not consult with the IG’s office before releasing FBI text messages.
On Friday, Sessions released a statement saying his department was committed to producing for six congressional committees text messages between FBI employees Peter Strzok and Lisa Page from July 1, 2015, to July 28, 2017. “The inspector general has been reviewing these texts based on ‘allegations that department or FBI policies or procedures were not followed . . . and that certain underlying investigative decisions were based on improper considerations,’” he said. But he acknowledged that after reviewing 50,000 texts and turning them over to Congress, some in the FBI’s internal messaging system were missing for five months between Dec. 14, 2016, and May 17, 2017.
“We will leave no stone unturned to confirm with certainty why these text messages are not now available to be produced and will use every technology available to determine whether the missing messages are recoverable from another source,” Sessions added. “If any wrongdoing were to be found to have caused this gap, appropriate legal disciplinary action measures will be taken.”
The missing emails were addressed by Trump in a tweet on Tuesday, in which he said, “In one of the biggest stories in a long time, the FBI says it is now missing five months worth of lovers Strzok - Page texts, perhaps 50,000, all in prime time. Wow!”
Also on Tuesday, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, capped off a weekend of reviewing some of the personal texts by releasing examples during an appearance on a Milwaukee radio show. The texts between agents who were allegedly lovers are expressing “his gut sense that there’s no big there there when it comes to the Mueller Special Counsel investigation,” Johnson said in a release. “I think that’s kind of shocking. The correct reaction is we need to see the five months of missing texts, because, who knows? Again, texts between two people having an extra-marital affair, and they’re completely unguarded in their communication. And so we’re getting insight into exactly what’s happening inside the FBI at the highest levels.”
Later on Tuesday, Johnson was joined by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, in writing to Horowitz requesting an explanation of why the IG apparently delayed in alerting Congress to the missing text messages.
That came the day after three key House committee chairmen released a statement calling attention to the Strzok-Page emails. “The contents of these text messages between top FBI officials are extremely troubling in terms of when certain key decisions were made by the Department of Justice and the FBI, by whom these decisions were made, and the evident bias exhibited by those in charge of the investigation,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.; Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C.; and Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif. The gap in the record of text messages “encompassing the FBI’s Russia investigation is equally concerning,” they said. “Rather than clearing up prior FBI and DOJ actions, these recently produced documents cause us to further question the credibility and objectivity of certain officials at the FBI.”
Nunes’ ongoing efforts to shine a spotlight on the FBI’s alleged biases in the Mueller probe has been met less enthusiastically by his Senate counterpart, Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R- N.C.. On CNN on Monday, Burr said he wasn’t very concerned about the text messages. “I’m not going to read anything into it other than it may be a technical glitch at the bureau. The fact that they have provided the rest of them certainly doesn’t show an intent to try to withhold anything.”
Democratic House members on Tuesday countered their Republican counterparts with their own statement. “Republicans are now attacking the FBI in order to undermine Special Counsel Mueller and protect President Trump, but their claims are directly at odds with the facts,” said Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.; Oversight and Government Reform Committee Ranking Member Elijah Cummings, D-Md.; and Intelligence Ranking Member Adam Schiff, D-Calif. “Republicans condemn FBI officials for supposedly taking action during the presidential campaign to assist Clinton and harm Trump, but this ignores the plain reality that these same FBI officials were involved in notifying Congress just days before the election that the FBI was reopening the Clinton investigation—an unprecedented action that severely damaged Clinton’s bid for President."
At the same time, they continued, “the FBI had an ongoing investigation of the Trump campaign’s connections with Russia, as well as reports that the Russians had compromising information on the candidate, but kept all of this information confidential in the months before the election—actions that greatly benefited the Trump campaign."
Horowitz testified to Congress in November that he hopes to have his report on the FBI’s conduct in the 2016 election by March or April.
This story has been updated to reflect Sen. Grassley's role in communicating with Horowitz.