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The growing conservative conspiracy theory about missing FBI texts, explained

President Trump just called it “one of the biggest stories in a long time.” But the real story isn’t what he thinks.

FBI Seal Mark Reinstein/Corbis/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

In the conservative world, outrage over “the missing texts” is everywhere.

The allegation, which you’re hearing from President Trump, Fox News, and Republicans in Congress alike, is that the FBI intentionally deleted an unknown number of texts between two FBI employees. The messages of special agent Peter Strzok and attorney Lisa Page supposedly contain proof of an FBI plot to undermine the Trump presidency.

Strzok and Page have been in the crosshairs of the White House and its defenders since the mid-December release of texts in which they discussed an “insurance policy” against Trump in the runup to the November election. Special counsel Robert Mueller removed Strzok from his team when he became aware of the texts, but that hasn’t stopped some conservatives from alleging that they prove the Mueller probe is a partisan witch hunt.

“Are we really supposed to believe that the FBI simply lost text messages from that important time frame? This is like Watergate but far worse,” Sean Hannity said on his Monday night show. “This reeks of law-breaking, it reeks of conspiracy, and it reeks of obstruction of justice.”

There is very little evidence to support this allegation, but it shows every sign of snowballing into a big deal. President Trump called the missing messages “one of the biggest stories in a long time” in a Tuesday morning tweet; Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said an investigation into how they disappeared is already underway.

The “missing texts” conspiracy has legs because for months, Republicans have been arguing that the FBI in general, and Mueller’s probe specifically, is irreparably biased against Trump. Some Republicans, like Florida Rep. Francis Rooney, have called for a ”purge” of purportedly disloyal bureau personnel.

This rhetoric points to the real scandal here: Republicans are trying to impose a partisan, Trump-loyalist litmus test on America’s top law enforcement agency. Moreover, they’re working to derail a probe into the growing evidence that Russia meddled in an American election on a massive scale.

Why the texts have fueled a conspiracy theory

To understand why the “texts” have become such a big deal, we need to go back to the 2016 campaign.

During that time, Strzok had been assigned to the investigation into the Trump campaign’s links with Russia — while also conducting an extramarital affair with Page. Strzok and Page discussed work and national politics quite frequently over text message, neither of them making any secret about their views of Trump. Strzok referred to Trump as a “douche” and an “utter idiot,” and told Page that Hillary Clinton “just had to win” the race.

Most damningly from the Republican point of view, Strzok once referred to an “insurance policy” against Trump winning.

“I want to believe the path you threw out for consideration in Andy’s office — that there’s no way he gets elected — but I’m afraid we can’t take that risk,” he told Page. “It’s like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you’re 40.”

It’s a really confusing message. It could easily be read, as former Bush administration attorney Stewart Baker argues, as Strzok simply explaining why he’s spending time worrying about the prospects of a Trump victory.

But when the messages were released to the public in December 2017, after news broke that Mueller had dismissed Strzok from his role in the Russia investigation, the pro-Trump press seized on it as proof of an anti-Trump conspiracy theory in the FBI — especially since the “Andy” referred to in the message could be Andrew McCabe, the deputy director of the FBI.

The issue had receded from the headlines in 2018 until last Friday, when the Justice Department announced that it did not have records of Strzok-Page texts between December 14, 2016, and May 17, 2017. This is a crucial time in the Russia investigation, encompassing Michael Flynn’s resignation due to lies about Russia ties and FBI Director James Comey’s firing — so this naturally raised some eyebrows.

The official explanation from the Justice Department is that there was a problem with Strzok and Page’s bureau-issued Samsung Galaxies — that “firmware upgrades” and other technical issues deleted records of texts sent from many phones across the bureau. But Trump and his allies didn’t buy it and have waged a furious campaign in the media to declare the missing texts as proof of an FBI conspiracy.

There is no evidence to support such a wild claim. Whether there actually was a software glitch is easily verifiable; according to a Monday statement from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Inspector General’s office is already investigating the issue.

“We will leave no stone unturned to confirm with certainty why these text messages are not now available to be produced,” Sessions wrote. “If any wrongdoing were to be found to have caused this gap, appropriate disciplinary action measures will be taken.”

So it’s possible that Strzok and Page were part of a widespread FBI conspiracy to undermine Trump, one that reaches so far into the bureau that they had a mole in the IT department who was willing to delete their most damning messages. It’s also possible — and much more likely — that the US government ran into technology glitches, which is not exactly unheard of.

The party of law and order is waging war on the FBI

Immigrants Naturalized As US Citizens Despite Government Shutdown John Moore/Getty Images

The “texts” have struck a chord because they play directly into the growing Republican strategy to counter the Mueller probe.

As members of Trump’s campaign and inner circle continue to be indicted and investigated, making it harder and harder to dismiss the Mueller investigation as a nothingburger, the most hardcore Trump supporters in Congress and the media have begun arguing instead that the FBI cannot be trusted. The Mueller probe is indeed a “witch hunt,” as the president tweeted, proof that the bureau is a corrupt institution that needs to be purged.

Conservative media now regularly refers to a “deep state” of FBI and Justice Department officials working to undermine Trump. Increasingly, this kind of conspiratorial language has bled over into the actions of elected officials. In November, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) gave a speech on the House floor arguing that the Mueller probe was part of a quiet coup against America’s elected officials.

“We are at risk of a coup d’état in this country if we allow an unaccountable person with no oversight to undermine the duly elected president of the United States,” Gaetz said.

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) has put together a secret memo — one that he won’t even share with the Justice Department — that allegedly shows proof of institutional anti-Trump bias at the FBI and DOJ. The memo, like the texts, has become a kind of cause célèbre in the conservative movement. #ReleaseTheMemo is a popular hashtag in right-wing social media circles.

On Monday, Reps. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) and John Ratcliffe (R-TX) went on Fox News to allege there were secret Strzok-Page texts — ones that they alone had picked up on — showing evidence of a “secret society” of anti-Trump Justice Department officials.

“It makes it harder and harder for us to explain away one strange coincidence after another,” Ratcliffe said.

The “texts,” in this narrative, are the new version of Hillary Clinton’s private server emails — a kind of totem that conservatives can point to in order to prove that their enemies really are nefarious and that proof of their wildest theories is there if only someone could find it. This is typical in conspiracy theories; strange coincidences are strung together in a narrative that looks scary if you squint at it right. The absence of proof is taken as its own kind of proof.

What’s atypical about this conspiracy is that it’s being embraced by much of the conservative movement — up to and including the president of the United States.