On Tuesday morning, President Trump spread a conspiracy theory, and he wants you to believe it’s evidence the Department of Justice is rigged against him.
“New Strzok-Page texts reveal ‘Media Leak Strategy,'” Trump tweeted, referring to newly released April 2017 text messages between former FBI agents Peter Strzok and Lisa Page. “@FoxNews So terrible, and NOTHING is being done at DOJ or FBI – but the world is watching, and they get it completely.”
New Strzok-Page texts reveal “Media Leak Strategy.” @FoxNews So terrible, and NOTHING is being done at DOJ or FBI – but the world is watching, and they get it completely.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 11, 2018
The Washington Post sheds additional light on the texts, which Trump wants you to see as evidence Strzok and Page, who were having a romantic affair at the time, were coordinating a strategy to leak information about the Russia investigation to the press.
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.” (Page resigned from the FBI in early May 2017.)
In another, on April 12, Strzok tells Page, “Well done, Page.”
Trump isn’t alone in trying to exploit the newly released texts to push a conspiracy theory. On Monday night, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) claimed they constitute evidence that “senior officials at FBI/DOJ selectively leaked info to the media about ongoing investigations related to the Trump admin.”
NEWS: We’ve received NEW text messages from the DOJ, once again suggesting our suspicions are true–senior officials at FBI/DOJ selectively leaked info to the media about ongoing investigations related to the Trump admin.
We just sent this letter to DAG Rod Rosenstein. pic.twitter.com/FgF3f2wM0f
— Mark Meadows (@RepMarkMeadows) September 10, 2018
But there’s a much simpler explanation for the texts, coming as they did two months after Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a major DOJ campaign against leakers.
A straightforward reading of them suggests that when Strzok told Page he wanted “to talk to you about media leak strategy with DOJ before you go,” he was literally referring to the DOJ’s campaign against leakers.
The Washington Post fleshes it out:
Later text messages have come out suggesting Strzok was indeed tasked with [anti-leak] 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.”
After Trump posted his tweet on Tuesday morning, Strzok’s attorney, Aitan Goelman, released a statement saying the president’s interpretation of the texts is the opposite of true, adding that his client was actually referring to the DOJ’s anti-leak campaign.
Strzok attorney fires back: “The term ‘media leak strategy’ in Mr. Strzok’s text refers to a Department-wide initiative to detect and stop leaks to the media. The President and his enablers are once again peddling unfounded conspiracy theories to mislead the American People.” https://t.co/QefIU1Zoq4
— Peter Alexander (@PeterAlexander) September 11, 2018
A group of House Democrats also released a statement responding to Meadows by pointing out that “Republicans in Congress repeatedly cherry-pick, mischaracterize, and then leak bits and piece of documents to fabricate conspiracy theories to protect President Trump, and this is just the latest example.”
“The documents clearly show that Mr. Strzok and Ms. Page were not discussing how to leak documents to the press — but whether the Justice Department should change its regulations to stop leaks to the media,” it continues.
UPDATE: House Dems say the Strzok texts released by Rep. Meadows are clearly about a DOJ media leak *prevention* strategy and that Strzok's congratulatory text was more likely about a Comey profile published April 22. pic.twitter.com/mcdis1eAOy
— Kyle Cheney (@kyledcheney) September 11, 2018
As Goelman and the group of House Dems allude to, this isn’t the first time Trump and his allies in Congress have used bad-faith interpretations of the Strzok-Page texts to spread baseless conspiracy theories.
In January, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) pushed a theory that Strzok-Page texts indicated there was a “secret society” within the FBI that was trying to bring down Trump even before he won the election. But as soon as the texts were released publicly, it became clear Johnson’s conspiracy theory was based entirely on a misreading of a text message that was clearly intended as a joke.
Finally, the suggestion that Strzok and Page used leaks to try to bring down Trump doesn’t square with the history of the Russia investigation. There remains a major hole in the conspiracy theories advanced for more than a year by Trump and his allies: Strzok, Page, and other FBI agents didn’t leak about the fact the FBI began a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign more than three months before the 2016 election. If they had leaked this fact to the media at the time, it could have inflicted a mortal wound on Trump’s presidential campaign.
Instead, before the election, FBI officials went out of their way to publicize the bureau’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails. Prominent pollsters have concluded the FBI’s unusual handling of the Clinton investigation may have thrown the election for Trump. The Trump administration even cited the bureau’s rough handling of Clinton as a pretext for Trump’s decision to fire then-FBI Director James Comey — right before he admitted he fired Comey over the Russia investigation.