- Thomson Reuters
- The Justice Department invited a group of reporters to its offices on Tuesday night to view private text messages.
- The messages were sent during the 2016 campaign by former investigators on the special counsel Robert Mueller’s team, and some expressed a negative sentiment toward President Donald Trump.
- The department’s invitation was “highly unusual,” one source said, since the texts are the subject of an ongoing investigation by its inspector general.
WASHINGTON – The Justice Department invited a group of reporters to its offices on Tuesday night to view private text messages sent during the 2016 campaign by Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, former investigators on the special counsel Robert Mueller’s team, Business Insider has learned.
President Donald Trump’s allies have seized on the texts, which were critical of Trump, describing them as evidence that Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s interference in last year’s election, including whether members of Trump’s campaign colluded with Moscow, has been tainted.
The texts were obtained as part of an investigation this year by the DOJ’s inspector general into how the FBI handled the probe into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.
Strzok, a veteran counterintelligence agent who was among those overseeing the Clinton investigation, was abruptly removed from Mueller’s team in late July and relegated to the human-resources department. Page left over the summer for unrelated reasons.
It is “highly unusual” for the DOJ to release private correspondences that are the subject of an ongoing investigation to Congress, let alone to the press, a source on one of the congressional committees investigating Russia’s election interference told Business Insider on Wednesday.
The source emphasized that none of the leaks came from Capitol Hill, which obtained the texts from the DOJ separately on Tuesday.
“It’s appalling behavior by the department,” said Matthew Miller, a former DOJ spokesman. “This is an ongoing investigation in which these employees have due-process rights, and the political leadership at DOJ has thrown them to the wolves so Rosenstein can get credit from House Republicans at his hearing today.”
One source close to the process who requested anonymity to discuss internal DOJ deliberations said the texts were given to reporters in case they did not leak in time for Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s public hearing on Wednesday morning.
“It is at least debatable whether it was appropriate to turn them over to the Hill in the middle of an ongoing investigation,” Miller said. “Under no circumstances was it appropriate to leak them to the press.”
It is not clear who invited the reporters to view the texts.
Asked by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday who authorized the invitation, Rosenstein demurred – but he said there had been a decision that the texts turned over to Congress were fit for public consumption.
Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin asked Rosenstein whether he knew “of any other occasions in which material in an ongoing investigation was released to reporters.”
Rosenstein replied: “We consulted wtih the inspector general to determine that he had no objection to releasing the material. If he had, we would not have released it.”
A DOJ official provided a statement to Business Insider on Wednesday: “We often provide information we give to Congressional committees to avoid any confusion.”
Asked whether that also applies during investigations by the inspector general, the official replied, “Statement stands.”
It is true that the DOJ will sometimes give documents to reporters that it is already going to hand over to Congress. But it is not clear that the DOJ has ever released private text messages to the press that are the subject of an ongoing OIG investigation.
Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell asked Rosenstein on Wednesday whether Attorney General Jeff Sessions played any role in inviting the reporters over to the DOJ.
“Not to my knowledge,” Rosenstein replied.
Asha Rangappa, a former FBI counterintelligence agent, said that if the invitation was approved by Sessions’ office, it could be “a violation of his recusal” from investigations in which he has a conflict of interest.
Rangappa said she had “never heard of DOJ interfacing directly and privately with reporters, outside of an official press conference.”
“Especially when there is still an ongoing internal investigation,” she added. “Both FBI and DOJ have press offices that should be fielding questions from reporters on behalf of the agency.”
Stephen Boyd, a former communications director for Sessions who’s now the assistant attorney general for the Office of Legislative Affairs, provided the correspondences to Congress.
Former FBI agents who spoke to Business Insider last week emphasized that the nature of FBI investigations makes it impossible for one employee to exert outsize influence over others.
“It would be literally impossible for one human being to have the power to change or manipulate evidence or intelligence according to their own political preferences,” said Mark Rossini, a former FBI unit chief who spent 17 years at the bureau.
“FBI agents, like anyone else, are human beings,” he added. “We are allowed to have our political beliefs. If anything, the overwhelming majority of agents are conservative Republicans.”
Rangappa echoed that sentiment.
“The FBI investigators who are working on any given day will probably be mostly politically conservative,” Rangappa said, drawing from her interactions with agents under President George W. Bush.
That is one reason, she said, Republicans should “think carefully” about the precedent they’re setting in pointing to agents’ political leanings as evidence of a tainted investigation.