On 23 January 2018, some United States lawmakers laboring under the impression that a secret anti-Trump society was afoot among the ranks of the Federal Bureau of Investigation went on television to make that claim— only to later walk back their comments after the source was revealed to be an apparent joke.
This latest fevered conspiracy theory to sweep the right-wing cable news and Internet ecosystem is founded in accusations from Republicans that an FBI-led criminal probe into alleged collusion between the Kremlin and associates of the U.S. president is stacked against him due to purported anti-Trump bias at the FBI. The November 2016 text message between two FBI employees on which the latest Russia probe-related rumor is based reads:
Are you even going to give out your calendars? Seems kind of depressing. Maybe it should just be the first meeting of the secret society.
That message was among a cache of exchanges between FBI attorney Lisa Page and agent Peter Strzok, who used their government-issued phones to communicate with each other while carrying on an extramarital affair. Because they shared with each other unfavorable opinions about U.S. President Donald Trump, and because Strzok was until July 2017 a member of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team investigating allegations of collusion between the Kremlin and President Trump's associates, congressional Republicans have claimed the messages prove the Russia investigation is biased (although Mueller pulled Strzok off his team when he learned of the texts).
On 24 January 2018, ABC News obtained the above message and reported it verbatim. It was sent from Page to Strzok one day after the 8 November 2016 election, and it was apparently an inside joke referencing not the planning stages of a secret society meeting but a Vladimir Putin-themed calendar — a gag gift meant to be given to other Russia investigators.
Before the message's entire text and context were made public, however, wild speculation about an FBI "secret society" bounded through right-wing web sites and cable news. On his personal web site, Fox News personality Sean Hannity reported:
A recent treasure trove of text messages exchanged between FBI officials reveal a covert “secret society” at the bureau, suggesting a cabal of officials at the Department of Justice sought to oppose President Trump the day after his election.
According to Fox News, Peter Strzok -a senior FBI agent involved in the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s private email server- sent multiple messages to DOJ lawyer Lisa Page, mentioning a “secret society” to fight the Trump agenda in November 2016.
This narrative picked up significant steam when members of Congress including Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-South Carolina) and Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) jumped into the fray, even going on Fox to talk about a "secret society" during their appearances on the influential conservative cable network. It got a significant push by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin), who chairs the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
Johnson appeared on Fox News on 23 January 2018 and reported that an unnamed "informant" had told him about secretive "off-site" meetings among FBI agents:
So what this is all about is further evidence of corruption — more than bias but corruption at the highest levels of the FBI, now secret society? We have an informant that's talking about a group that were holding secret meetings off-site. There's so much smoke here, there's so much suspicion....
We sent Johnson's spokesman Austin Altenburg a detailed list of questions asking for clarification of Johnson's statements and to elaborate further on the reliability of his source. We received no response. But Johnson's comments put the unfounded story back in headlines, with sites like DailyCaller.com reporting "Senator Confirms Existence Of FBI ‘Secret Society,’ Says He Has Informant."
Johnson walked back his claim about the secret society on 25 January 2018, amid backlash from political rivals like Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York) who called it "delusional." But when questioned by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about his comments, Johnson stood by his claims of having an informant who spoke of secret off-site FBI meetings:
We're not going to be deterred at all by whatever comments, derogatory-wise, that Sen. Schumer made.
Richard Painter, a former White House ethics lawyer who is now co-director of the governmental accountability group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a University of Minnesota Law School professor, told us that aside from misusing government-issued phones, neither Strzok or Page broke the law. It's likely, he added, the reason they were using their work phones was to hide their affair from their spouses, not to plot against Trump in their capacity as FBI employees.
He added that there's no evidence of an anti-Trump bias at the FBI. Not only has the story has been blown out of proportion, he said, "the whole thing is stupid." He added:
They’re making a big whoopty-do about nothing. One of them [Strzok] was hired by Mueller and when Mueller found out he was using the phone for that purpose he canned him. If they had been using their personal phones to talk about Trump, they would have been perfectly in their right to do so.
You are bound to find career government workers who don’t like Trump, and you’re bound to find career government workers who send text messages about not liking Trump, and among those you are going to find some that are in each other's beds when they shouldn’t’ be. Big deal. Congress shouldn't be wasting our money looking through the texts of these bozos. The only people whose time it's worth going through their texts are divorce attorneys on behalf of their spouses.