The text message between two FBI employees that launched days of Republican speculation about a "secret society" does not reveal an obvious intention behind the exchange, and raises the possibility that it may have been an off-hand remark or joke.
Conservatives have seized on the exchange between FBI lawyer Lisa Page and FBI agent Peter Strzok, which was sent after the 2016 presidential election, as potential evidence of an anti-Trump bias at the FBI. Strzok was a member of the FBI team investigating Hillary Clinton's email server and, later, a member of Robert Mueller's special counsel operation looking into Russia's attempted interference in the 2016 election.
Conservatives had seized on the exchange
The text has provided gist for conservatives who doubt the objectivity of Mueller's investigation
According to the message, which CNN has viewed and was first reported by ABC News, the context of the "secret society" reference is unclear. Attorneys for Strzok and Page have so far declined to comment to CNN.
"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," Page wrote to Strzok.
Strzok was reassigned to the FBI's human resources office after the discovery of the messages. Page completed her detail with Mueller's team before the special counsel's office was made aware of the texts.
The text has provided gist for conservatives who doubt the objectivity of Mueller's investigation and the FBI.
"Here are two bureau agents talking about a secret society. I don't have a clue what they're talking about. I don't know whether one existed," House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-South Carolina, told CNN's Erin Burnett Wednesday. "But you know what Erin, it's not my responsibility to prove that. They're the ones who used the phrase. They're the ones who should explain it. I can't tell you what they meant. I can just tell you what they said."
More text exchanges
In another text message, sent the day after the November 2016 presidential election, Strzok told Page: "Omg I am so depressed."
The texts are among messages provided to House and Senate committees after reports that Strzok was fired from Mueller's team for allegedly sending anti-Trump messages.
As lawmakers from several committees continue to sift through the trove of text messages between the two, GOP lawmakers have released details of some of the text exchanges.
In one, Strzok, the former No. 2 counterintelligence official at the FBI, seemed to suggest he didn't think there was any "'there' there" to the special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the US election, according to Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.
In others, the pair discussed ways to "fix" damage done by the FBI's investigation into Clinton's email server, according to Johnson and Gowdy.
Johnson -- who on Tuesday suggested bias and potential corruption "at the highest levels of the FBI" -- tempered his outrage Thursday, telling CNN's Manu Raju that "it's a real possibility" that the "secret society" text was exchanged in jest.
Leading Republicans have questioned the FBI over a missing series of exchanges between the two officials, with some Republicans suggesting there could be a nefarious motive behind the gap.
Trump referred to the missing texts late Tuesday night, asking about the whereabouts of the "50,000 important text messages." That figure, however, refers to the total number of texts between Strzok and Page that the Justice Department inspector general has reviewed on FBI servers. The number of missing texts, which span a five-month period, is not known.
'No stone unturned'
Attorney General Jeff Sessions promised Monday to "leave no stone unturned" in an investigation to determine how the messages, sent on bureau-issued phones, were not collected by the FBI's retention software.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers atop the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is conducting its own probe into Russian election interference, downplayed the possibility of any wrongdoing behind the missing texts.
"I don't know that I read anything into it other than that there may be a technical glitch at the bureau," North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr, the Republican chairman, told CNN's Manu Raju. "The fact that they have provided the rest of them certainly doesn't show an intent to try to withhold anything. We've just got to wait until we find out."
Added the committee's top Democrat, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia: "At this point I accept the FBI's word."
In a cover letter accompanying the delivery of the messages, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd explained that technical issues with the FBI's retention software prevented the bureau from capturing messages sent between the two employees on their agency-issued Samsung 5 phones from December 14, 2016, to May 17, 2017.
The Republican chairs of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Senate Homeland Security Committee also sent a letter to the Justice Department's inspector general Tuesday requesting more information on the missing texts.
In the letter, Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Johnson wrote that the IG told them last month that the IG's office had received all text messages between Strzok and Page from November 30, 2016, to July 28, 2017, contradicting the gap reported in the cover letter.
"These statements ... need to be reconciled," the senators wrote.
House and Senate investigators are going through 384 pages of text messages. They were turned over Friday evening by the Justice Department.
This story has been updated to reflect CNN's reporting on the text message.
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