Two weeks into a vociferous campaign questioning the integrity of the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation, elements of the Republican narrative have begun to unravel.
President Donald Trump’s own Justice Department pushed back this week against allegations that the FBI abused the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act during the probe. In a letter, the Trump-appointed assistant attorney general for legislative affairs told the Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee that the department was “currently unaware of any wrongdoing relating to the FISA process.”
Claims from some Republican lawmakers that there existed a “secret society” of anti-Trump FBI agents also started to fall apart, as ABC News obtained the sole text message on which the claim appeared to be based — a text message many have since suggested could have been made in jest. Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, chair of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, who’d helped spread the “secret society” claim on Fox News this week, admitted to CNN Thursday that the text could have been a joke. The night before, the New York Times reported the text might have been a glib reference to a gag gift — Russia-themed calendars — that agents had received.
Meanwhile, another text exchange between FBI agent Peter Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page cast doubt on Republican allegations that Strzok’s animus toward Trump had fueled the Trump-Russia probe. Instead, the text appears to show that Strzok, who was the lead investigator in the early months of the probe, was hesitant to join special counsel Robert Mueller’s team. "You and I both know the odds are nothing,” his text to Page said, according to Johnson. “If I thought it was likely, I'd be there no question. I hesitate in part because of my gut sense and concern there's no there there."
And the assertions of a corrupt conspiracy to protect Strzok, fueled by revelations that months of text messages between him and Page had disappeared, suffered a blow Thursday when the Justice Department’s inspector general reported that the missing texts had been recovered. The day before, the FBI also revealed that thousands of its phones – not just Strzok's and Page’s – had been affected by the technical glitch that it says deleted the messages, further undercutting the theory that their communications were being concealed from investigators.
The developments were greeted with ribbing by critics of the Republicans’ concerns, with the Senate Intelligence Committee’s vice chair, Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, tweeting a joke about the so-called secret society.
Even some Republicans found the situation amusing. Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a member of the Intelligence Committee and the number-two Republican in the Senate, told BuzzFeed News on Thursday that the talk of a “secret society” had left him mystified.
“I don’t know what people are talking about,” he said. “Maybe it’s a secret and I just don’t know the secret. There’s a movie...Fight Club. The first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club.”
Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a member of the Homeland Security Committee, urged fellow Republicans to cool the rhetoric. Portman, speaking to CNN, also told members to trust Mueller and the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigations and wait until both release their findings to come to any conclusions.
House Republicans leading the charge against Mueller’s probe now face a decision: Either share with the Department of Justice and the FBI a GOP-drafted memo alleging abuse of surveillance laws, or forge ahead with a vote as early as next week to circumvent declassification rules, with the goal of releasing a document Democratic critics call misleading and the Justice Department has warned could endanger national security.
The memo, drafted by the staff of House Intelligence Committee chair Devin Nunes, has already been shared with the entire House of Representatives, though the underlying documents it apparently cites as evidence have been seen by few. Nunes himself has not seen those documents, according to the letter from the Justice Department, which said that job had been delegated to Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina.
Since the Justice Department’s letter was made public, however, some of the DOJ and FBI’s most vocal critics have become quieter, with only Johnson backtracking on his previous claims.
Fox News host Sean Hannity — one of the loudest proponents of the campaign to make the FISA memo public — wrote only “#ReleaseTheMemo” in a tweet linking to a story claiming the Justice Department sought “to block” the committee from releasing the “bombshell” document.
Meanwhile, Hannity's fellow Fox News host, Shepard Smith, blasted Nunes, noting the chair’s past troubles leading the committee and the timing of the memo’s release, which roughly coincides with news that Mueller is planning to interview Trump as part of the collusion and obstruction of justice probe.
Nunes, for his part, is far away from the recent developments as he travels with House Speaker Paul Ryan on a congressional delegation trip to the Middle East. But Rep. Mark Meadows, who spoke to BuzzFeed News at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, stood by the memo and the Intelligence Committee’s efforts to release it publicly. "The difference between this document and others is that it has substance not rhetoric," Meadows said.
Asked if he was worried about undermining trust in institutions such as the FBI, Meadows said, "I worry about us not having adequate trust in the premier law enforcement agency," but continued to blame the FBI.
And Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York continued on Thursday to advocate on Fox News for releasing the FISA memo. "There's nothing wrong with revealing bad sources and methods,” he said. “And where there is something that would come out that might make some people at the DOJ and FBI look bad — folks toward the top — that is no reason not to release the memo.”
"I think this memo is coming out very soon,” Zeldin added. “Hopefully in the next few days."
In any case, the Senate Intelligence Committee — long seen as the last bastion of nonpartisanship in the congressional Russia inquiries, the rest of which have been derailed by interparty bickering — has shown little interest in House Republicans’ vocal criticisms of Mueller’s investigation.
Sen. Richard Burr, the chair of the committee, bluntly told reporters Wednesday that he doesn’t discuss details of the investigation. Burr then appeared to take a shot at House Republicans’ public posturing during the investigation. “They've talked about it since the beginning,” he said, smirking. “That's their prerogative.”
Thomas Frank in Washington and Ben Smith in Davos, Switzerland, contributed reporting.