We’ve seen it as the impeachment inquiry has unfolded as well. Robust evidence that Trump leveraged his position to pressure Ukraine into announcing investigations that would benefit him politically has been set aside by Trump and his allies in favor of questions about process, a focus on the whistleblower who brought the situation to light — and who has overwhelmingly been validated — and a redirection of blame toward Trump’s original targets, including former vice president Joe Biden.
Next week, we'll have another entry into this set, the release of a report from Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz assessing the origins of the Russia investigation that evolved into Mueller's probe. It has been hailed for months as being potentially explosive, depicted by Trump's allies and the conservative media as likely revealing broad malfeasance on the part of the intelligence community in unfairly targeting Trump and his campaign before his election as president.
Early indicators are that this expectation will be not be fulfilled. The Washington Post’s national security team reported last month that the report “generally rebuts accusations of a political conspiracy among senior law enforcement officials against the Trump campaign to favor Democrat Hillary Clinton while also knocking the bureau for procedural shortcomings in the FBI.” The New York Times reports that Horowitz determined that many of the most common theories among Trump backers about the origins of the Russia probe — that it was an attempt to spy on his campaign or that it lacked proper predication — will not be upheld.
We'll see what it says. On Monday morning, though, we got a glimpse of how the Horowitz report is nonetheless likely to be received.
The Daily Beast’s Molly Jong-Fast obtained an interview with Lisa Page, a former FBI lawyer who has been pushed to the center of theories about a conspiracy to unfairly target Trump. She exchanged messages with another FBI employee, former special agent Peter Strzok, in which the pair discussed the investigation into Russian interference — which Strzok led — and in which they disparaged Trump himself before the 2016 election. As a result of those interactions, Strzok was removed from Mueller’s team early in the investigation.
A separate report from the inspector general released in June 2018 determined that the discussions were “antithetical to the core values of the FBI” and threatened the bureau’s “reputation for neutral factfinding and political independence,” but that there was nonetheless no evidence that the pair’s disparagement of Trump affected any investigations.
Despite that finding, the Strzok-Page texts have become a central component of theories about how Trump was unfairly targeted. The Justice Department initially released a subset of the messages focused on disparaging Trump, while others, released later, were culled to suggest nefarious activity. None has become more commonly cited than one in which Strzok refers to an “insurance policy” in the event Trump were to win the election.
The Page interview was the first time she’d presented her experiences in the media. She expressed frustration at how the interactions were framed and at the way in which her romantic relationship with Strzok became an undercurrent of criticism of what they’d done. She told Jong-Fast it was Trump’s depiction of the two in that context at a rally in Minnesota that spurred her to speak to the media.
That, unsurprisingly, was also the context in which the interview with Page was presented by the hosts of “Fox & Friends” on Monday.
Page is “one of the so-called FBI lovebirds,” host Steve Doocy said to introduce the segment, echoing a line used by Trump. (The Fox News show is, of course, almost unfailingly aligned with Trump’s political rhetoric.) He suggested there was something suspect about the timing of the Page interview: “A lot of people say, why is she done being quiet the week before the IG report comes out?”
The hosts walked through the interview briefly, at one point quoting Page’s response to Trump’s targeting of her.
“The president of the United States is calling me names to the entire world. He's demeaning me and my career. It's sickening,” Page said, as quoted by host Brian Kilmeade. “But it's the president's belief that he was part of possibly a plot to upend his presidency ahead of time,” he then added. “And I think it's safe to say he's a little ticked."
A bit later, he criticizes Jong-Fast for not pressing Page harder. Page notes that the Russia probe began with the revelation that a Trump campaign adviser named George Papadopoulos had been informed by a London-based professor that Russia had emails incriminating Clinton. He later told an Australian diplomat about that conversation over drinks, which the FBI learned about in July after WikiLeaks began releasing information stolen from the Democratic National Committee and the Australian government conveyed what it had learned.
“Page says, ‘The FBI gets the predication to look into Trump by George Papadopoulos, which starts the whole Russia investigation,’” Kilmeade said. “Which goes back to the biggest questions people have: Who was talking to George Papadopoulos? Where is this professor that started this whole thing? Where’s the ambassador that meets him by chance in a bar? This goes back into it. And there’s no follow-up question from the Daily Beast reporter.”
Perhaps because all of this has been well established. In 2017, Papadopoulos admitted to having lied to federal investigators about his interactions with the professor, Joseph Mifsud. He admitted further that Mifsud took an interest in him only after learning he’d been tapped by the Trump campaign. After serving a prison sentence for lying about Mifsud and when he was told about the stolen emails — and before announcing a congressional campaign — Papadopoulos has publicly insisted that Mifsud was part of a plot to frame him, something Kilmeade is echoing given its utility in presenting the Russia probe as unfairly targeting Trump. But in a sworn statement (and as summarized in Mueller’s report), Papadopoulos had already admitted how his interaction with Mifsud evolved.
“Well, don’t forget,” host Ainsley Earhardt added, “they were talking about in those text messages the insurance policy. If Hillary Clinton had won, none of this would have even come to light."
This is, again, one of the central misrepresentations of the Strzok-Page texts (including, again, by Trump).
“I want to believe the path you threw out for consideration in Andy’s office — that there’s no way he gets elected — but I’m afraid we can’t take that risk,” Strzok wrote on Aug. 15, 2016. “It’s like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before 40."
The context for the message was the referenced meeting with then-FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe. The group was discussing how aggressively to pursue an investigation into Russian interference, with Page, suggesting that they move slowly since Trump was unlikely to win. Moving slowly had a specific rationale: Doing so would allow the FBI to better protect its sources. Strzok disagreed, suggesting they needed to move quickly just in case Trump did win — something that seemed as unlikely in August 2016 as a 40-year-old suddenly dropping dead. If Trump won, they’d need to have vetted his possible team in case any were compromised, something that required moving fast and potentially burning sources. Not likely, but, then, 40-year-olds have life insurance policies just in case.
That explanation makes more sense than the Earhardt-Trump explanation, which isolates “insurance policy” to suggest that Page and Strzok wanted to use the Russia investigation as a way to pressure Trump after he won. Why, if the goal was to have leverage over Trump, didn’t they simply release what they had before the election to keep him from winning? By mid-September, Trump and Clinton were nearly tied in the polls, as they were shortly before the election. Why not interfere at one of those points? There was a public acknowledgment of questions about one of the candidates right before the 2016 election, of course — targeting Clinton.
Again, Earhardt is blithely reiterating a theory that’s already been explained. The explanation is inconvenient to the idea that Trump was unfairly targeted, though, so it’s set aside in favor of the insinuation — assuming the Fox hosts have ever even been exposed to the explanation.
On Twitter, Trump ally Charlie Kirk offered his own conspiracy theory about the Page-Strzok text messages.
“Did you know,” he wrote, “Robert Mueller’s office deleted 19,000 text messages between Lisa Page and Peter Strzok"? What, he continued, “were they trying to cover up?"
The answer is simple: Nothing, because he’s wrong. There weren’t 19,000 deleted messages but, instead, 19,000 messages that weren’t saved using the bureau’s established protocol for capturing messages because of a technical glitch. Most of those messages were nonetheless later recovered. Messages the pair exchanged on iPhones issued when they began working for Mueller were not stored, though the messages on Strzok’s phone were reviewed and determined not to be substantive. That review, mind you, happened after Strzok was removed from the team out of concern about his past exchanges with Page.
This, too, was known before Monday. But it’s not part of the story that Kirk and Trump and the “Fox & Friends” team want to tell. They, instead, pick out particular things from that vast buffet — after-the-fact claims by Papadopoulos, later-debunked news articles about deleted text messages, Trump’s own rhetoric — and lift them up to suggest that questions about Russian interference in 2016 were always about stopping Trump.
There’s nothing at this point to suggest that the release of Horowitz’s report next week will lead to anything but a shuffling of the chosen buffet items to continue to make that same argument.