Democrats pressed the Justice Department on Thursday to explain why it released salacious, anti-Donald Trump text messages exchanged between two FBI employees who are still under investigation for their work on the Russia special counsel investigation.
Judiciary Committee ranking member Jerrold Nadler of New York and two other panel Democrats asked for a full review of DOJ’s decision making that led to Tuesday night’s release of about 375 texts that the FBI officials — Peter Strzok and Lisa Page — sent over a 15-month period during the 2016 presidential campaign.
The Democratic lawmakers called Justice’s decision an “unusual move” after the texts were given to Congress and a select group of reporters earlier this week.
Strzok was removed from Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation team in late July when DOJ officials learned about the text messages as part of a broader inspector general examination into alleged misconduct by then-FBI Director James Comey and others during the 2016 campaign. Page ended her assignment to Mueller’s office earlier this summer.
The messages, sent while the two FBI officials were reportedly having an extramarital affair,refer to Trump as an “idiot”, express support for Democrat Hillary Clinton and disparage several other political leaders, including Bernie Sanders and Attorney General Eric Holder.
DOJ’s decision to release the text messages this week before the public IG report is finished — Inspector General Michael Horowitz has saidhe may be done by April — is now the subject of controversy.
Democrats had pressed Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein about the department’s release protocol for the messages during a Judiciary Committee oversight hearing on Wednesday. There, Rosenstein explained DOJ decided to make the text messages public after getting requests for them from Congress.
He said DOJ press officials had also consulted with the IG’s office and obtained permission.
“Generally speaking, our goal is to be as forthcoming with the media as we can, when it is lawful and appropriate to do so,” Rosenstein said during the hearing. “So I would not approve anybody disclosing something that was not appropriate to disclose.”
In their letter Thursday, the Democrats askedDOJ Public Affairs Director Sarah Isgur Flores to name the DOJ officials who evaluated the content of the text messages to ensure they could be released. They also requested the names of who at DOJ gave the green light to share the messages with the media at the same time they were being delivered to Congress. Nadler, joined by Democratic Reps. Hakeem Jeffries of New York and Jamie Raskin of Maryland, also asked for a list of which reporters and media outlets attended the Tuesday night briefing and any documents they were shown.
Separately, the Democrats asked Horowitz “for further clarification” on whether DOJ did, indeed, consult with the IG’s office prior to sharing the text messages with Congress and the media.
In a statement Thursday sent to POLITICO in response to the House Democrats’ latest letter, Isgur Flores said DOJ had provided key Judiciary Committee members with the texts in their offices Tuesday night before Justice’s Public Affairs division shared the same messages with the media.
“As we understand now, some members of the media had already received copies of the texts before that — but those disclosures were not authorized by the department,” she added.
DOJ had been planning to include the text messages as part of the final IG report, Isgur Flores added, but then changed course and opted for the early release after getting congressional committee requests for the material.
She said Rosenstein consulted with the IG, who “determined that he had no objection to the department’s providing the material to the congressional committees that had requested it.”
DOJ also turned to senior career ethics advisers who “determined that there were no legal or ethical concerns, including under the Privacy Act, that prohibited the release of the information to the public either by members of Congress or by the department.”
Justice’s IG office declined to comment.
The DOJ decision to release the text messages to the media and lawmakers before the IG report has drawn criticism from outside the department. Samuel Buell, a former assistant U.S. attorney and Duke University law school professor, called the move “very odd and unprofessional.”
Benjamin Wittes, the editor-in-chief of the blogLawfare, wrote Thursday that the Strzok-Page issue should be “adjudicated within the confines of a serious, internal investigation, not a partisan circus.”
“Rosenstein here has, at a minimum, contributed to that circus — at the expense of his own employees,” Wittes added. “In throwing a career FBI agent and career FBI lawyer to the wolves by authorizing the release to the public of their private text messages — without any finding that they had done anything wrong — he once again sent a message to his workforce that he is not the sort of man with whom you want to share your foxhole. The DOJ and FBI workforces will not forget that. Nor should they.”
The text messages themselves have also sparked partisan debate, with Republicans seizing on them as evidence of “extreme bias” in both Mueller’s Russia probe and last year’s FBI investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server while running the State Department, where Strzok served as the lead FBI agent.
"Department of Justice investigations must not be tainted by individuals imposing their own political prejudices,” the panel’s chairman, Rep. Robert Goodlatte of Virginia, said during Wednesday’s hearing.
Democrats countered that the messages were private exchanges protected under the First Amendment. "Peter Strzok did not say anything about Donald Trump that the majority of Americans were not also thinking at the same time," Nadler said. (Politico)