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Right-wing media obsesses over FBI text message story; hours later it's debunked

Members of the pro-Trump media acted like they hit the goldmine on Wednesday morning. Led by Fox News, these outlets ...

Posted: Feb. 8, 2018 9:10 AM
Updated: Feb. 8, 2018 9:10 AM

Members of the pro-Trump media acted like they hit the goldmine on Wednesday morning. Led by Fox News, these outlets went into a frenzy over what they presented as an explosive story that not only cast former President Obama and Hillary Clinton in a negative light, but simultaneously helped vindicate claims then-candidate Donald Trump made about the investigation into Clinton's private email server being "rigged."

But a CNN review of the story's premise indicates that key text messages the story relied on were taken out of context, and portrayed as meaning something entirely different than what they actually meant.

In the early hours of the morning, Fox News published an article on its website based on newly-released communications between senior FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page. The text messages were released Tuesday in a report produced by the office of Republican Sen. Ron Johnson.

In one September 2, 2016, text message, Page wrote that there was a meeting at the bureau setup because Obama wanted "to know everything we are doing."

Johnson, in his report, said the text message raised questions about Obama's involvement in the FBI's investigation into Clinton's use of a private email server. In fact, the message more likely indicated that Obama wanted to be kept informed of an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

In its story, Fox News reiterated Johnson's claim without scrutiny. In fact, it's not clear if Fox News even reached out to Obama's office prior to publishing to see if there were any other explanation for what Page said in her text. The story makes no note of the reporter having sought comment. In an email to CNN, Fox News spokeswoman Carly Shanahan declined to answer whether Fox's reporter had contacted Obama's office. "It's clear you're getting your talking points from a partisan analysis by Think Progress," Shanahan said, referring to a liberal news website.

Before other media outlets could provide the proper context for the text message, the narrative ricocheted through the pro-Trump media universe in what has become a pattern for stories that seem to call the investigation into Trump into question, or suggest that the investigation into Clinton wasn't thorough. The misleading messaging was delivered to millions of people through Fox News' airwaves and through other pro-Trump media, which went into overdrive. Articles about the text led websites from the Drudge Report and Breitbart to InfoWars and the Gateway Pundit.

The story eventually made its way to the president himself, who amplified it further when he tweeted, "NEW FBI TEXTS ARE BOMBSHELLS!"

People familiar with the matter strongly dispute the assertion that the text message referenced the Clinton email probe. The text message, they say, was actually referencing Obama's desire to be kept abreast on the FBI's investigation into Russian election meddling.

One former Obama official told CNN that the idea the text message was about the Clinton email investigation was "total nonsense," noting that the theory did not conform with the timeline of events.

Indeed, the text message was sent on September 2, 2016, months after the bureau had closed its investigation into Clinton, and before it reopened that investigation. But September 2, 2016 was just days before Obama confronted Russian President Vladimir Putin over Russia's meddling in the presidential election.

A person familiar with Strzok's thinking reiterated this account, telling CNN that the text referred to Obama's broader interests in issues of potential Russian interference in the election more generally. The idea that Obama was micromanaging the FBI's investigation does not match reality, the person said.

In a footnote in his report, Johnson even seemed to concede that the idea the text message referred to the Clinton email investigation was only speculation. The report said the Justice Department said it redacted "text messages that were personal in nature or relating to other investigations." Because this message was not redacted, Johnson's report said, it could be presumed that the Justice Department "believes it may relate to the FBI's investigation of classified information on Secretary Clinton's private server."

This is not the first time a claim pushed by Johnson and Fox News has fallen apart in recent weeks. In late January, the Wisconsin senator backed off a claim -- similarly amplified by Fox News -- that text messages between Strzok and Page indicated there was a "secret society" at the FBI. Johnson did so after people familiar with the exchange said the text message referenced a gag gift of Putin-themed calendars that one of the employees purchased for those working on the early stage of the Russia investigation.

Fox News continued to discuss the story on its air Wednesday afternoon, even after multiple outlets -- including the Wall Street Journal, which is controlled by Fox head Rupert Murdoch -- had reported contrary information.

-- CNN's Dan Merica contributed reporting.

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