Text messages between two former FBI employees, agent Peter Strzok and attorney Lisa Page, have become central to the theory that the bureau’s investigation into Russian interference was predicated on bias against President Trump and his campaign.
Those messages disparaging Trump during the campaign and after Election Day in 2016 were significant enough that Strzok first lost his position on special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team last year and then, in August, his job with the FBI. But their afterlife as the scaffolding of a broad range of theories about the illegitimacy of that investigation has been impressive. That’s in part because of the embrace of those theories by Trump himself, as shown most recently on Tuesday morning.
“Biggest outrage yet in the long, winding and highly conflicted Mueller Witch Hunt,” Trump wrote on Twitter, “is the fact that 19,000 demanded Text messages between Peter Strzok and his FBI lover, Lisa Page, were purposely & illegally deleted. Would have explained whole Hoax, which is now under protest!”
That followed another tweet over the weekend, in which Trump wrote, “So where are all the missing Text messages between fired FBI agents Peter S and the lovely Lisa Page, his lover. Just reported that they have been erased and wiped clean. What an outrage as the totally compromised and conflicted Witch Hunt moves ever so slowly forward. Want them!”
Whether intentionally or not, Trump is conflating a number of different things incorrectly.
That latter tweet about messages being “erased and wiped clean” appears to have been based on a report from a conservative website that has gained traction in recent days. Last week, the Office of the Inspector General at the Justice Department released a report looking at an admittedly odd aspect of the Strzok-Page texts. For several months in 2016 and 2017, the FBI’s tool for collecting messages sent on bureau phones wasn’t working properly, meaning that a number of messages, including some from Strzok and Page, went missing. The inspector general reviewed that gap, hoping to determine how it happened and, if possible, whether there was any nefarious intent.
The Federalist, a conservative site that often echoes Trump’s rhetoric, noted that the IG’s report mentioned iPhones that had been used by Strzok and Page, both of which were wiped after being turned back in to the FBI. Others picked up that report, including the Washington Examiner, suggesting that the FBI and the special counsel had been lax — maybe intentionally?? — in not reviewing the devices once they were returned.
But there’s not really much mystery here, and Trump’s conflation of missing text messages and the wiped iPhones to argue that proof the investigation into him was biased is completely off the mark.
Both Strzok and Page had at least three government-issued phones over the course of 2016 and 2017: A Galaxy S5, a Galaxy S7 and those iPhones. Page got her S5 in early 2016, based on when the first messages were collected from it; Strzok got his in 2015. The gap in the FBI’s collection of messages, which affected 10 percent of phones, lasted from December 2016 to May 2017. Messages from Strzok’s S5 phone weren’t collected beginning in June 2016, for reasons that aren’t clear.
In the middle of 2017, both got new S7s. When each joined the special counsel’s team, they were also given those iPhones.
Now, notice a key point here: There were not going to be any messages on the iPhones related to the start of the Russia investigation because they didn’t get the phones until well after Mueller had been appointed! Unless Strzok and Page decided a year after the investigation began in July 2016 to start reminiscing over text about their theoretical plot to take down Trump, any messages on those phones wouldn’t have revealed anything about its genesis.
At the heart of this new conspiracy theory is that the devices were reset to factory defaults after Strzok and Page turned them in, Page in late July and Strzok in August. Page’s phone wasn’t inspected by the staffer assigned to ensure that important data wasn’t deleted because Page had left her phone in her office when she left the special counsel’s team instead of directly turning it in. Eventually it was wiped and reissued to another employee, but it’s not clear what happened in the interim.
But Strzok’s phone was inspected once he turned it in. Here’s what the inspector general’s report says:
“As part of an office records retention procedure, the SCO [special counsel’s office] Records Officer stated that she reviewed Strzok’s phone on September 6, 2017. She told the OIG that she determined it did not contain records that needed to be retained. She noted in her records log about Strzok’s phone: “No substantive texts, notes or reminders.” The SCO Records Officer does not recall whether there were any text messages on Strzok’s phone, but said that she made an identical log entry for an iPhone she reviewed from another employee on the same day that she specifically recalled having no text messages.”
In other words, on one of the two phones that might have been involved in these theoretical text-message exchanges, no text messages were found. Maybe Strzok deleted the messages — or maybe he and Page simply kept texting on their other devices, which they apparently had until they left the bureau, Page in May of this year and Strzok in August.
There’s no evidence that anything nefarious happened. But Trump and many of his defenders are often interested more in raising questions than answering them. Trump, by constantly suggesting that evidence has been erased, raises the possibility that proof that he’s been unfairly targeted — or, as we saw in 2016, proof that Hillary Clinton was up to no good — might once have existed but now has vanished into the ether. It’s both extremely convenient and impossible to defend against: Well, sure, maybe proof that everyone is out to get you once existed, but there’s no reason to assume it did.
Especially since there’s no evidence that anyone tried to destroy evidence from these phones. As with his claim that Clinton “acid-washed” her email server, his assertion that 19,000 text messages were deleted is entirely untrue. This figure derives from the number of messages recovered from Strzok’s and Page’s S5s from the period when the collection tool wasn’t working. The IG report indicates that 8,358 messages to or from Page were recovered from Strzok’s phone and 9,717 to or from Strzok were recovered from Page’s. Many, understandably, were duplicates.
So, to summarize:
- There’s no evidence that any messages were deleted in order to hide them from investigators.
- The iPhones at the heart of the latest conspiracy theory were only issued in May and June of last year, well after the investigation into Trump had begun.
- The 19,000 messages referenced by Trump were found, not lost.
The beauty of conspiracy theories is that, like a liquid, they fill whatever space they’re poured into. There was, earlier this year, a broad outrage on the right about those missing messages from the period when the collection tool wasn’t working. It was used as evidence that Strzok and Page were out to get Trump, that these messages were deleted to keep them private.
When the messages were recovered and explained, the conspiracy theory reformed around that. Just as it is re-forming now.