Update: Johnson is now backing off his claim of an "informant" even more, conceding it might have been a joke. "It's a real possibility," he told CNN.
Yet again, Peter Strzok's text messages have given President Trump's most ardent defenders a strand of twine to which they can hitch their conspiracy theory wagon. Before, it was Strzok's reference to an “insurance policy” if Trump were to win; now, it's a reference to a “secret society” after Trump's win.
After Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) alluded to that phrase Tuesday, ABC News obtained the whole text message on Wednesday night. It was sent by FBI lawyer Lisa Page to Strzok, the senior FBI agent with whom she was having an affair and sharing anti-Trump texts. It came the day after the 2016 election:
Are you even going to give out your calendars? Seems kind of depressing. Maybe it should just be the first meeting of the secret society.
As with “insurance policy,” the most literal reading of the text message would seem damning. And Johnson leaned into it hard Wednesday, saying, “We have an informant talking about a group that was holding secret meetings off-site.” Johnson added: “There is so much smoke here. There is so much suspicion.” Comments by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) on the same case over the past 24 hours have also gained attention and pushback.
But as with the “insurance policy” text, the most literal explanation is very likely doing people a disservice, and there's a much more plausible, non-nefarious explanation. At the very least, Johnson's animated description of the whole thing seems to be about a mile ahead of the evidence.
The first problem with this theory is the idea that anybody who has a secret society would simply refer to it as “the secret society.” I'm not familiar with how these things work, but that seems a little too on-the-nose (and probably against the rules). ABC rather charitably and neutrally writes “it's unclear if the message's reference to a 'secret society' may have been made in jest.” And it is, technically speaking, unclear.
But there is also plenty of reason to believe that it's a joke, and that's because there was plenty of talk late in the 2016 election about just such a conspiracy happening behind closed doors within law enforcement. It was talk spurred by Trump.
Trump's theories included pointing to State Department official Patrick Kennedy's requests to the FBI to declassify some of Clinton's emails — which Trump and others alleged amounted to collusion between the Clinton campaign and law enforcement — and also a reported agreement in Clinton aides' immunity deals to destroy their laptops after they were reviewed by investigators. Fox News, in its reporting on the latter situation, called it a “side arrangement.”
Trump keyed on the Kennedy news at an Oct. 18, 2016, rally in Colorado Springs. “The FBI documents show that Patrick Kennedy made the request for altering classification as part of a very, very serious quid pro quo,” he said. “Not allowed to do it. This is a felony corruption. Yesterday, I said Undersecretary Kennedy must immediately resign.”
In both this and a speech the day before in Green Bay, Wis., Trump also referred to “the destruction of laptops, in a secret deal with the FBI.”
“This is a criminal conspiracy — a conspiracy that included Hillary's deleting and bleaching of 33,000 emails, the disappearance of 13 phones, two boxes of email evidence gone missing, and the destruction of laptops in a secret deal with the FBI,” Trump said Oct. 17.
Trump also tweeted this that day:
In the intervening weeks, after then-FBI Director James B. Comey announced more Clinton emails were being reviewed, Trump would go on to accuse the Justice Department of trying to intervene in the FBI's investigation to benefit Clinton. Trump said in Golden, Colo., on Oct. 29 that “it's reported that the Department of Justice is fighting the FBI — that's because the Department of Justice is trying to protect Hillary Clinton.” He said much the same thing Nov. 3 in Jacksonville, Fla.
What's more, the New York Times is reporting that the "calendars" reference is to "Russia-theme [sic] calendars to give out to the agents and analysts investigating Russia’s interference in the election" as gag gifts. And HuffPost reports that the calendars featured beefcake photos of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It's easy to forget what happened more than a year ago, but the Trump who today is suggesting a conspiracy among law enforcement to take him down was doing the very same thing during the 2016 election. And just as journalists joke about Trump's cries of “fake news,” it seems altogether likely these law enforcement officials were joking about his allegations that they were engaged in a “secret society” conspiracy against him.
Is it worth making sure that's not the case? Of course. Do the texts make the FBI look bad? Yep. But Johnson pretending this should be taken at face value as if it came from an actual "informant" is doing everyone a disservice. And it suggests there is a dearth of actually good evidence on which to prosecute his case.