It’s just … not a lot to go on.
According to ABC News, that was the first sentence in a now-infamous text message sent by FBI lawyer Lisa Page to Peter Strzok, an FBI agent who would eventually be assigned to the team supporting special counsel Robert S. Mueller III in his investigation of Russian meddling and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Strzok was removed from that position two months into the special counsel’s tenure after text messages with Page disparaging Trump in 2016 were revealed.
It’s not that sentence, though, that has captured the public’s attention. It continues:
“Seems kind of depressing,” the text, sent on Nov. 9, 2016, reads. “Maybe it should just be the first meeting of the secret society.”
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) first mentioned a “secret society” on Fox News Channel earlier this week, describing the use of the phrase in one of the Page-Strzok texts. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) followed that up by telling Fox News’s Bret Baier that senators were aware of an informant who described off-site meetings between FBI agents. Perhaps this, he speculated, was the “secret society” mentioned in the texts! A group of FBI agents meeting outside of the agency to plot a takedown of the president.
We don’t know if the message above is the one to which Gowdy was referring, but it’s easy to see how the lens through which the use of “secret society” is seen colors how it’s interpreted. There are any number of things it could mean, and any number of different meetings to which it might refer. (As many have pointed out, it’s not uncommon for those in illicit romantic relationships — as were Page and Strzok — to refer to aspects of those relationships obliquely.)
It’s just … not a lot to go on.
That nebulousness is problematic. But there are two other core problems to the line of argument that Strzok and Page were involved in a nefarious group aimed at undermining the Trump administration.
The first is that we tend to lose sight of how far we are from the central issue: The investigation of President Trump. Grand conspiracies can be unwound by small things — a piece of tape on a door in the Watergate Hotel, for example. But there are thousands of innocuous small things that surround every perfectly normal thing that happens. If you sort through enough of those, you may, eventually, find something that seems as though it could support an argument that supports an argument that supports the argument that the perfectly normal thing is not normal at all. All you need are some newspaper articles, a blank wall, thumbtacks and a length of red yarn to tie it all together.
It’s impossible not to see in this echoes of the infamous Pizzagate affair of late 2016. Extrapolating outward from some of the emails stolen from Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta that were released by WikiLeaks, conspiracy theorists cobbled together a tale of pedophilia centered on a D.C. pizza joint, an obvious nonsensical claim based on obviously misinterpreted evidence. But this is how it goes sometimes.
Nebulousness is a feature of such theorizing, not a bug. So here we have one unclear text message between two people out of thousands at the FBI, one of whom was briefly part of a larger team of people working for a special counsel who wasn’t appointed until May who was himself picking up an investigatory thread that the FBI began in July 2016. (There’s a separate theory about the genesis of that investigation that is pretty hollow.) Trump regularly tries to undercut criticism by finding one tangential thing that might introduce a smidgen of doubt. This is the same thing: Maybe this one text message shows that maybe this one agent was biased against Trump and maybe influenced the investigation of Trump or the investigation of Clinton’s email server. Maybe not.
The other core problem is more fundamental.
A group of politicians is asking Americans to believe that it is career FBI agents who overlaid partisan politics onto their work based on scraps of evidence that, held in the proper light, sort of hint at something to that end. It is those agents, trained to eliminate their biases, who are biased, we are told, and it is these Republican politicians who are objective and unbiased in their analysis.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to give out some “calendars.” [winks conspiratorially]
Update: HuffPost learned what “calendars” probably referred to, and it’s … interesting.