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Exclusive: Trump pressed Sessions to fire 2 FBI officials who sent anti-Trump text messages

Trump also asked Attorney General Sessions and FBI Director Wray to find derogatory information on the officials, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page.

Trump Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images

President Donald Trump sharply questioned Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FBI Director Christopher Wray during a White House meeting on January 22 about why two senior FBI officials — Peter Strzok and Lisa Page — were still in their jobs despite allegations made by allies of the president that they had been disloyal to him and had unfairly targeted him and his administration, according to two people with knowledge of the matter.

The president also pressed his attorney general and FBI director to work more aggressively to uncover derogatory information within the FBI’s files to turn over to congressional Republicans working to discredit the two FBI officials, according to the same sources.

The very next day, Trump met Sessions again, this time without Wray present, and even more aggressively advocated that Strzok and Page be fired, the sources said.

Trump’s efforts to discredit Strzok and Page came after Trump was advised last summer by his then-criminal defense attorney John Dowd that Page was a likely witness against him in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether Trump obstructed justice, according to two senior administration officials. That Trump knew that Page might be a potential witness against him has not been previously reported or publicly known.

The effort to discredit Strzok and Page has been part of a broader effort by Trump and his allies to discredit and even fire FBI officials who they believe will be damaging witnesses against the president in Mueller’s obstruction of justice probe.

Those attacks, in turn, are part of a broader push to denigrate Mueller himself and make it easier for Trump to publicly justify his potential firing. Those efforts have taken on new urgency as Mueller continues to rack up guilty pleas from former senior Trump officials like Michael Flynn and Rick Gates, and after the FBI, in conjunction with other federal prosecutors, raided the office, home, and hotel room of Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime lawyer. Trump’s fury over the raid has made many of his closest advisers worry that he’s inching closer to firing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the Mueller probe, and possibly Mueller as well.

Last May, Trump fired James Comey as FBI director, who today appears to be the special counsel’s most crucial witness against the president. Trump also enlisted his attorney general to pressure current FBI Director Wray earlier this year to fire then-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. Wray thought the pressure was so improper that he threatened to resign if it did not end.

Trump’s efforts against Page and Strzok demonstrate that the president personally has targeted even midlevel officials and career FBI agents.

Why Strzok and Page became the focus of right-wing anger

Strzok was formerly the FBI’s deputy assistant director of the counterintelligence division, and Page was a senior FBI attorney.

Strzok helped oversee two of the FBI’s most politically contentious investigations: the probe of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and a private email account while she was secretary of state; and an investigation into whether campaign aides to Donald Trump colluded with Russia to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. As general counsel to then-Deputy FBI Director McCabe, Page provided legal and strategic advice about both investigations to both Comey and McCabe.

For a brief period, Strzok served as the lead FBI agent for the special counsel, and Page as an attorney also worked for Mueller. The two came under scrutiny by four separate Republican congressional committees after text messages between the two of them surfaced last December in which both had made derogatory comments about Trump just prior to and after the 2016 election. Strzok and Page worked closely together and were engaged in an extramarital affair at the time.

Page and Strzok repeatedly disparaged Trump in their private messages to each other. Right after Trump’s surprise electoral victory, Strzok texted Page: “OMG I am so depressed.” Page replied: “I don’t know if I can eat. I am very nauseous.”

But a review of thousands of the texts sent between the two FBI officials shows that they also severely criticized both Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, and talked bluntly and critically of colleagues and others. No evidence has come to light to substantiate allegations that the FBI’s investigations were politicized to either protect Clinton or persecute Trump. In fact, Strzok was reassigned from Mueller’s team when the derogatory text messages were discovered by his bosses (Page reportedly had left Mueller’s team earlier). Through their attorneys, Strzok, Page, and McCabe declined to comment.

Nevertheless, Trump and his allies have attempted to paint Mueller as untrustworthy and biased because both Strzok and Page briefly worked for him. And they have pushed the narrative that a cabal of FBI officials — which at times has included Comey, McCabe, Page, and Strzok, among others — are out to get the president.

“There was a brazen plot to illegally exonerate Hillary Clinton, and if she didn’t win the election, to then frame Donald Trump with a falsely created crime,” veteran Washington attorney Joseph diGenova, whom Trump recently considered having join his legal defense, told Fox News in January. “Make no mistake about it: A group of FBI and DOJ people were trying to frame Donald Trump of a falsely created crime.”

The missing text messages

The narrative of a “deep state” conspiracy against the White House by government workers has at times centered on some missing text messages between Strzok and Page — text messages that, according to critics of the Mueller investigation, were allegedly deleted by the FBI to cover up a plot to undermine Trump.

During the January 22 meeting with Sessions and Wray, the president parroted that narrative, complaining about a significant gap of several months in Page and Strzok’s text messages and suggesting that the FBI was covering them up, according to the two government officials familiar with the meeting.

The FBI declined to comment for this article, refusing to confirm that Wray met with the president or attorney general on January 22: “There is no public schedule for the director,” FBI spokesperson Andrew Ames said in an email. Regarding other details, Ames said, “We have no comment on the remainder of your questions.” A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said, “We don’t comment on conversations with the president.”

Trump’s meeting with Sessions and Wray occurred one day after a report in the Washington Post, in which Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), the chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, had written Wray complaining that the FBI “did not preserve text messages between Ms. Page and Mr. Strzok” during a five-month period that was crucial to investigators.

After the White House meeting on January 22, the attorney general was immediately responsive. In a statement made public that same day, Sessions vowed, “We will leave no stone unturned to confirm with certainty why these text messages are not now available to be produced and will use every technology available to determine whether the missing messages are recoverable from another source.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions Win McNamee/Getty Images

The next morning, Trump ratcheted up the pressure, tweeting: “In one of the biggest stories in a long time, the FBI says it is now missing five months worth of lovers Strzok - Page texts, perhaps 50,000, all in prime time. Wow!”

But within a week, the Justice Department’s inspector general was able to recover and turn over the missing text messages to Congress. It turned out the FBI had been unable to recover texts from thousands of its agents, not just Strzok and Page, when it upgraded its Samsung Galaxy phones.

Trump viewed Page as a potential witness against him

The event at the center of the special counsel’s obstruction of justice investigation is the now-famous account by Comey that President Trump had pressured him, in a one-on-one meeting in February 2017, to shut down the FBI’s criminal investigation into whether former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had lied to the FBI about his contacts with Russian officials.

When Comey refused to shut down the Flynn investigation and turned down other requests from Trump regarding the Russia probe, Trump fired Comey. That, in turn, led to the appointment of Mueller as special counsel to investigate possible collusion between Trump campaign aides and Russia to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. Mueller almost immediately expanded his investigation into whether Trump also obstructed justice.

Trump and his allies have expressed their belief that it would be difficult to bring any obstruction of justice case against the president because the allegations would boil down to the word of one person — Comey — versus that of another, the president of the United States. Trump has relentlessly attacked Comey, hoping to raise doubts about the former FBI director’s credibility.

As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp has written, Mueller could seek permission to indict and prosecute Trump if he feels he has enough evidence of a potential crime. But it’s not clear that charges can actually be brought against a sitting president, though Mueller’s findings could nevertheless be turned over to Congress and serve as the centerpiece of any impeachment proceedings against Trump.

Last June, I first reported at Vox that Comey regularly confided in three of the FBI’s most senior managers about his troubling interactions with Trump regarding the Russia probe, including the Oval Office meeting during which Trump asked Comey to shut down the FBI’s investigation of Flynn. Among those Comey said he confided in were Andrew McCabe; Jim Rybicki, then Comey’s chief of staff; and James Baker, then the FBI’s general counsel.

One quote in a follow-up story particularly distressed the president’s then-private attorney, John Dowd, and other advisers to the president, according to a senior administration official. “What you are going to have is the potential for a powerful obstruction case,” a senior law enforcement official told me at the time. “You are going to have the [former] FBI director testify, and then the acting director, the chief of staff to the FBI director, the FBI’s general counsel, and then others, one right after another. This has never been the word of Trump against what [James Comey] has had to say. This is more like the Federal Bureau of Investigation versus Donald Trump.”

In subsequent testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey confirmed that he regularly confided in McCabe, Rybicki, and Baker but also briefly noted that he sometimes invited other less senior FBI officials to meetings on the topic of his encounters with Trump.

One person Comey identified was “the deputy director’s chief counsel.” This was an apparent reference to Lisa Page. No press reports then or since identified her as a potential witness against Trump before this story — even as the president, his political allies, and Republican-controlled investigative committees on Capitol Hill relentlessly attacked her.

But the reference caught Dowd’s attention. After doing some research, Dowd concluded that Page might be a dangerous witness against the president, according to a senior administration official, because she may have attended meetings with Comey and other senior FBI managers during which Comey discussed his troublesome contacts with the president — perhaps even the meeting during which Trump allegedly ordered Comey to shut down the Flynn investigation. Moreover, as chief counsel to McCabe, Page might have been privy to information McCabe had about similar matters.

As first reported by Foreign Policy in late January, President Trump approved a plan to carry out a campaign to discredit senior FBI officials after Dowd warned him that they were all almost certainly going to provide damaging testimony that might implicate him in an obstruction of justice case. According to the source, one of the officials specifically targeted was Page.

The relentless Republican assault on the FBI

FBI headquarters Mark Wilson/Getty Images

McCabe, as deputy director, was perhaps the most serious threat as a witness against Trump, beyond Comey. Sure enough, Trump turned his sights to McCabe in recent months.

According to an Axios report in January, Wray had threatened to resign as FBI director after Sessions, acting on Trump’s orders, pressured him to fire McCabe. Wray told Sessions that he had no cause or legal justification to fire McCabe. Sessions ultimately fired McCabe in March.

In light of those events, a senior federal law enforcement official told me that he was surprised Wray did not take more seriously the president’s discussion with him regarding Page. “A president ordinarily doesn’t care about personnel and staffing decisions at the FBI. One had to at least consider this as a furtherance of an obstruction,” the person said.

What’s been lost in the fog of conspiracy theorizing around the Mueller probe is the fact that virtually all of the FBI’s most senior managers supported Comey’s decision to announce the reopening of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails 11 days before the election — an announcement that arguably helped Donald Trump pull off his victory.

Even as that investigation received blanket coverage, the public knew nothing at all about the FBI investigation into Trump’s top campaign officials for colluding to interfere with the presidential election to help Trump.

“Look, if there was some conspiracy by Jim Comey, Andy McCabe, Lisa Page, Peter Strzok, the FBI, the deep state, whatever you want to imagine,” a senior federal law enforcement official told me, “the plain fact is that if someone at FBI wanted to tip the election, they would have leaked the existence of that investigation to the New York Times. But nobody said a word, and nobody did because that is the way things really work.”

The right’s assault on the institutional reputation of the FBI has been politically successful. A Reuters/Ipsos poll in January found that nearly 73 percent of Republicans think that “members of the FBI and Department of Justice are working to delegitimize Trump through politically motivated investigations.”

In the meantime, the congressional investigations of the FBI have taken a toll on the law enforcement agency’s investigative capabilities.

On March 18, Wray released a statement saying that even though the FBI had already “dedicated 27 FBI staff to review records” to the House Judiciary Committee about Comey, McCabe, Page, Strzok, and other FBI officials, the FBI was now “doubling” its efforts. There would now be no less than 54 FBI staff members who would work “two shifts per day from 8 a.m. to midnight to expedite completion of this project.”

The number is apparently greater than the number of FBI agents working full time for Robert Mueller.

Murray Waas is an independent journalist who is a former investigations editor for Vice, a former investigative reporter for Reuters, and a former senior correspondent for National Journal. He has written about the Mueller investigation for both Vox and Foreign Policy, and has written for the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the New York Times, and the Boston Globe.