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Facts Matter

Timelines: FBI agent texts and #ReleaseTheMemo

Donald Trump.
Donald Trump departs for Davos in Switzerland. Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Republicans and Democrats are clashing over two hot topics centered on the federal government's ongoing investigations of the Trump campaign and administration: lost texts between two FBI employees who were formerly part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe and the #ReleaseTheMemo campaign. On Thursday, the Justice Department reportedly told lawmakers that the texts have been recovered.

Why it matters: The disputes over these topics underscore the hyper-polarized climate of 2018 — where facts can be stretched and interpreted to fit two competing, wholly at-odds narratives from both ends of the political spectrum.

The lost FBI texts

2016

  • Then-FBI counterintelligence deputy head Peter Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page — who were involved in an extramarital affair at the time — exchanged text messages with each other over the course of the 2016 election that "could be interpreted as showing political bias for Hillary Clinton and against President Donald Trump," per CNN.
    • An example: From Strzok to Page on November 9, the day after Election Day: "Omg I am so depressed."
    • Another: "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."

July 2017

  • Page left Mueller's team before any of the text messages came to light. Strzok departed two weeks later after the messages came to light and was demoted to the FBI's human resources department.

December 2017

  • The New York Times broke the news that Strzok, the top FBI representative assigned to the Mueller probe, was removed from Mueller’s investigative team over the summer because of the texts.
  • The Wall Street Journal reported that the Strzok-Page text exchanges not only attacked Trump but also a wide variety of personalities across the political spectrum, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Attorney General Eric Holder, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Clinton, and Rep. Paul Ryan.
  • As the texts were shared with the House Judiciary Committee, the DOJ invited a small group of reporters to a secret nighttime visit of its headquarters to view the texts — reportedly so that they would leak before a congressional hearing by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

January 2018

  • Trump called the texts evidence of “treason” in a Wall Street Journal interview. In a tweet, he also called the texts "one of the biggest stories in a long time."
  • The Department of Justice announced that a technical glitch prevented the capture of messages between Strzok and Page — and many others at the agency using FBI-issued Samsung 5s — between December 14, 2016 and May 17, 2017.
  • The "secret society" text between Strzok and Page led some Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Ron Johnson, to take the comment seriously. He said, "I've heard from an individual that ... there was a group of managers within the FBI that were holding meetings off site."
  • Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered an investigation into the text messages, saying he and the DOJ's inspector general will “leave no stone unturned.
  • On Thursday, DOJ reportedly informed lawmakers that the missing texts have been recovered.

From both ends of the spectrum:

  • Republicans: House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy: “This is a level of bias that is stunning among law enforcement officers...It is manifest bias not just against Trump, but against his kids, against his business interests.”
  • Democrats: A statement from the top Democrats of the House Oversight Committee: “These Republican attacks show their desperation at the fact that Mueller already has obtained two guilty pleas, two indictments, and at least two cooperating witnesses.”

#ReleaseTheMemo

Summer 2016

  • Former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele compiled a dossier containing salacious but unverified claims about attempts by Russian intelligence to target Trump as an asset.
  • Steele's work was contracted by Fusion GPS — a Washington intelligence firm — and funded by a law firm working on behalf of the Clinton campaign and the DNC. Fusion GPS' work on Trump was initially started by the conservative outlet The Washington Free Beacon during the primaries in support of Sen. Marco Rubio.

October 2016

  • The FBI agreed to pay Steele to continue his work, but he ultimately backed out after the dossier became a focus of public attention.

2017

  • GOP Rep. Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, wrote a classified 4-page memo which reportedly accuses the FBI of using the Steele dossier as a pretext to obtain FISA wiretaps against American citizens — and claims that the Mueller investigation is based entirely on the dossier..

January 2018

  • After voting to allow committee members access to the memo, conservative members of the House — spurred by media attention from pundits like Fox News' Sean Hannity — called for the release of the memo on Twitter with #ReleaseTheMemo.
  • The Daily Beast reported that Nunes declined to show the FBI the memo.
  • When asked whether the White House would support the declassification of the memo, which would be Trump's decision, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders simply stated that the administration supports “transparency.”
  • Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee have voted along party lines to release the memo.

From both ends of the spectrum:

Republicans:

  • Donald Trump Jr.: "The reality is that if the memo were damaging to the republicans the democrats would have leaked it by now. Why the double standard? #releasethememo"
  • Rep. Mark Meadows, the chair of the House Freedom Caucus: “I thought [the contents of the memo] could never happen in a country that loves freedom and democracy like this country.”
  • Rep. Ron DeSantis: The memo “raises serious questions about the upper echelon of the Obama DOJ and Comey FBI as it relates to the so-called collusion investigation.

Democrats:

  • Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee: "Rife with factual inaccuracies and referencing highly classified materials that most of Republican Intelligence Committee members were forced to acknowledge they had never read, this is meant only to give Republican House members a distorted view of the FBI."

Another wrinkle, via WaPo: “Hashtags such as ‘#ReleaseTheMemo’ have been trending on Twitter in recent days, and accounts affiliated with Russian influence efforts have been supporting this campaign, according to the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a U.S.-based group that examines efforts by Russia and other nations to interfere in democratic institutions.”

The bottom line

The narrative that Americans hear — or don't — surrounding the Strzok-Page texts and the #ReleaseTheMemo controversy is entirely dependent on the media they consume and the politicians they trust. While the right has focused much its ire on these topics, the left dismisses them almost entirely, choosing to focus attention on the ongoing Mueller investigation.

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