Why would two FBI agents text each other about attempts to “develop” sources within an incoming American administration? Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Ron Johnson (R-WI) would like to know the answer to that question after more texts between Lisa Page and Peter Strzok became public late yesterday. The content of the texts suggest that the FBI was preparing to conduct surveillance on the incoming Trump administration to see whether their discussions on Russia became suspiciously friendly, Fox’s Catherine Herridge reported last night:
Text messages between former FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page indicate they discussed using briefings to the Trump team after the 2016 election to identify people they could “develop for potential relationships,” track lines of questioning and “assess” changes in “demeanor” – language one GOP lawmaker called “more evidence” of irregular conduct in the original Russia probe.
Fox News has learned the texts, initially released in 2018 by a Senate committee, are under renewed scrutiny, with GOP Sens. Chuck Grassley and Homeland Security Committee chair Ron Johnson sending a letter Thursday night to Attorney General Bill Barr pushing for more information on the matter.
“Any improper FBI surveillance activities that were conducted before or after the 2016 election must be brought to light and properly addressed,” the senators wrote.
Any transition between administrations from opposite parties might tend to be a bit fraught. The incoming group might worry that the agents doing nat-sec briefings might have too many ties and sympathies to their predecessors, and perhaps the nat-sec professionals might not be too comfortable with their new leaders. Therefore it might not be too unusual to strategize over agents tasked for the briefings to make sure that everyone’s comfort level is set at the most achievable level, and also to see which agents can develop good working relationships with incoming officials.
That might explain this text from Strzok, except perhaps for the “demeanor” comment:
Strzok: “Or, he’s ‘the CI [counter-intelligence] guy.’ Same.might make sense. He can assess if [there] are any new Qs, or different demeanor. If (redacted’s) husband is there, he can see if there are people we can develop for potential relationships.”
Fox consulted with former FBI intel officer Timothy Gill about the texts, and Gill found them troubling. At the very least, Gill told Fox, the strategizing violates guidelines set down by none other than Robert Mueller himself in the Domestic Investigations Operations Guide (DIOG) during his tenure as FBI director:
“Based on the formal training all FBI Employees were required to undergo and be tested on with regard to DIOG Sensitive Investigative Matters, these texts indicate both FBI employees were executing investigative strategies on a sensitive investigative matter without any regard for the Mueller/Holder endorsed DOJ DIOG,” Timothy Gill Sr. told Fox News.
At best, these texts look like a sloppy overlap between Operation Crossfire Hurricane and normal coordination between the FBI and the incoming administration. At worst, it sounds as though Strzok and Page contemplated running an intelligence operation against the elected leader of the United States.
Guess who’s taking the “at worst” perspective? Donald Trump dropped by Hannity last night to accuse the FBI of attempting to “infiltrate” his White House before it even launched:
“I don’t know if you remember a long time ago, very early on, I used the word ‘wiretap’ and I put it in quotes, meaning surveillance, spying, you can sort of say whatever if you want,” he said. This was a reference to his March 2017 tweets about Trump Tower being under surveillance — tweets that didn’t always put “tapped” in quotes as Trump suggests. What he alleged then was quickly and robustly denied by the FBI, and no evidence has emerged to suggest that he or his campaign were wiretapped.
“You see now they are trying to infiltrate the White House,” Trump told Hannity. “This is long after the election. It’s a disgrace.” He said that he hoped Barr “will do what’s right, and I really believe he will.”
Washington Post analyst Philip Bump chalks this up to the “feedback loop” between the White House and Fox News:
The trajectory here is straightforward. Republican lawmakers raise a question. Fox News reports on it, adding comment from a pro-Trump lawmaker that presents a worst-case scenario. Hannity loops in an outside, partisan voice and presents the worst-case scenario to Trump. Trump reacts hyperbolically. The hyperbole is then added back to the straight news story. Trump and his supporters gain a new argument about how unfairly the FBI was treating him, with a Fox News story to point to as evidence.
That’s the important thing about how all of this works. Fox News and conservative media outlets have built an extensive scaffolding around the idea that the FBI investigation into Trump was biased and flawed, constructing new points on old ones with which it assumes viewers or readers are already familiar.
Well, maybe. It’s certainly true that one is more likely to find scrutiny of the FBI in conservative media these days, but is it unwarranted? The outcome of Robert Mueller’s investigations leaves a lot of unanswered questions about how exactly the FBI undertook its unprecedented intrusion into a presidential election. There may be good answers to those questions, but no one will get them without someone asking.
For instance: Is there an innocent explanation for texts describing an intent to use nat-sec briefings to monitor the White House to check on the “demeanor” of its officials? Was the Carter Page FISA warrant properly predicated, with its requirement that the subject be almost undeniably a foreign agent? Did they rely too much on the Christopher Steele dossier as a predicate for any of these actions when it now seems apparent that much of it was inaccurate and might have been disinformation in its own right, as the New York Times recently suggested? The last we checked, the Gray Lady isn’t exactly part of the conservative-media archipelago.
And it’s not just conservative media and Trump who find these questions troubling, and the texts suggestive of misconduct:
In a letter to AG William Barr, Sen. Grassley seems to suggest that Obama's FBI spied on the Trump transition using the spouse of Pence's chief of staff to insert FBI moles into the Trump transition team and disguising sting ops on Trump's team as formal FBI briefings for them. pic.twitter.com/qOpV9iDOBy
— Sean Davis (@seanmdav) April 26, 2019
Those are questions worth pursuing, even if the only media outlets paying much attention to them are conservative. That seems more of an indictment of the other media outlets than Fox News, especially since most of the others spared no pixel in attacking the Bush administration over its counterterrorism operations that never intruded into US electoral politics. Something very clearly went wrong in this investigation to leave everyone under the impression for two years that Trump was some sort of Russian agent. It’s worth investigating how that happened, given its outside political impact, and whether the FBI played an improper role in creating that impression.
That doesn’t make Trump right, of course, nor does it necessarily prove any of the worst-case scenarios he unfolds during his 44-minute interview last night on Hannity. But it does show how corrosive these actions can be, and why we shouldn’t encourage the FBI or other intelligence agencies to get involved in politics without rock-solid evidence on which to proceed — which the Steele dossier turned out not to be. And the FBI should have known that.