President Trump and his allies have lodged a new accusation against former FBI agent Peter Strzok, seizing upon text messages in which Strzok and Lisa Page discussed a “Media Leak Strategy."
As usual, the interpretation is quite premature and very possibly wrong.
"New Strzok-Page texts reveal 'Media Leak Strategy,' " Trump tweeted, citing Fox News. “So terrible, and NOTHING is being done at DOJ or FBI - but the world is watching, and they get it completely."
The “Media Leak Strategy” refers to text messages Strzok sent to Page in April 2017. The texts were first reported by Sara Carter, who interpreted them as Strzok and Page plotting to leak against Trump. Trump's suggestion — “So terrible” — seems to be the same.
In one, on April 10, Strzok tells Page, “I had literally just gone to find this phone to tell you I want to talk to you about media leak strategy with DOJ before you go.”
In another, on April 12, Strzok tells Page, “Well done, Page."
House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) has written a letter to Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein suggesting Strzok and Page were leaking. He and conservative media have noted that, on April 11, the day between these two texts, The Washington Post broke a story about the FBI having obtained a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant to monitor Trump adviser Carter Page late in the 2016 campaign. This warrant has been the focus of conspiracy theories, most notably in House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes's (R-Calif.) memo alleging Justice Department targeting of the Trump campaign. The insinuation is clear: Strzok and Page orchestrated the leak as part of their established anti-Trump agenda.
Meadows tells Rosenstein in the letter that the texts “should lead a reasonable person to question whether there was a sincere desire to investigate wrongdoing or to place derogatory information in the media to justify a continued probe.”
But there is a much less nefarious possible explanation here: That Strzok and Page were not discussing fostering leaks but, rather, combating them.
Later text messages have come out suggesting Strzok was indeed tasked with such duties, and he earned renown for leading the leak investigation of ex-CIA agent John Kiriakou earlier this decade. Kiriakou pleaded guilty in 2012 and served two years in prison for sharing information with a reporter about an undercover CIA officer. Strzok also decried leaks in his July 2018 testimony to Congress. If anybody made sense to lead such an effort, it would be him.
Combating leaks was also a big initiative led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions (spurred by Trump himself) at the time. A week after these texts, for example, Sessions said he wanted to put people in jail for leaks. In February 2017, Trump said: “I’ve actually called the Justice Department to look into the leaks. … Those are criminal leaks.”
Strzok's attorney, Aitan Goelman, says this was indeed about rooting out leaks, not using them.
“The term ‘media leak strategy’ in Mr. Strzok’s text refers to a Departmentwide initiative to detect and stop leaks to the media,” Goelman said in an email. “The president and his enablers are once again peddling unfounded conspiracy theories to mislead the American People.”
It's important to note that in the first text, Strzok doesn't just talk about the “media leak strategy” but about a strategy being coordinated with the “DOJ” — the Justice Department. That could be read to suggest this was, indeed, about Sessions's anti-leak effort.
To believe something egregious happened here, you'd have to grant that, even in this climate in which the president was calling leakers “criminals” and the Justice Department was ramping up its crackdown effort, Strzok and Page were conspiring to leak themselves. They would also be looping in the same Justice Department that was professing to be cracking down on leaks. That would be an extremely bold strategy.
In addition, Strzok's “Well done, Page” text is also completely unclear. Is he referring to Lisa Page or Carter Page? Is he making a play on words? Could it be a reference to some success in the anti-leak effort, perhaps by preventing certain details from appearing in print? It's also not clear that what they were talking about was the Carter Page story or even something having to do with the Russia probe. There was a lot going on at the time.
It's worth noting that Strzok's critics have regularly used his text messages to make flimsy allegations. At one point, an apparently joking text about a “secret society” was pitched as proof of the “deep state” holding meetings to conspire against Trump. In February, Trump alleged a “BOMBSHELL” September 2016 text in which Strzok said President Barack Obama “wants to know everything we’re doing.” Trump suggested it amounted to Obama meddling in Hillary Clinton's email investigation; logic suggested it was about the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
At the same time, Strzok has done himself no favors with his texts, and the “insurance policy” text that first raised red flags is open to interpretation. We need to know more. One thing that's for sure is that history suggests two texts do not a scandal make, and Trump has shown little compunction about leaning into dubious conspiracy theories.
Correction: This post previously misstated the date of Lisa Page's resignation. It was May 2018, not May 2017.