WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department has turned over to Congress new text messages involving a senior FBI agent who was removed from special counsel Robert Mueller's investigative team after the discovery of derogatory comments about President Donald Trump.
But the department also said in a letter to lawmakers that its record of messages sent to and from the agent, Peter Strzok, was incomplete because the FBI, for technical reasons, had been unable to preserve and retrieve about five months' worth of communications.
New text messages highlighted in a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray by Sen. Ron Johnson, the Republican chairman of the Senate's Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, are from the spring and summer of 2016 and involve discussion of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server. They refer to Attorney General Loretta Lynch's decision to accept the FBI's conclusion in that case and a draft statement that former FBI Director James Comey had prepared in anticipation of closing out the Clinton investigation without criminal charges.
The FBI declined to comment Sunday.
Strzok, a veteran counterintelligence agent who also worked the Clinton email case, was reassigned last summer from the team investigating ties between Russia and Trump's Republican presidential campaign after Mueller learned he had exchanged politically charged text messages -- many anti-Trump in nature -- with an FBI lawyer also detailed to the group. The lawyer, Lisa Page, left Mueller's team before the text messages were discovered.
The Justice Department last month produced for reporters and Congress hundreds of text messages that the two had traded before becoming part of the Mueller investigation. Many focused on their observations of the 2016 election and included discussions in often colorful language of their personal feelings about Trump, Clinton and other public figures. Some Republican lawmakers have contended the communication reveals the FBI and the Mueller team to be politically tainted and biased against Trump -- assertions Wray has flatly rejected.
Lawyers for the two did not immediately respond to requests for comment Sunday.
In addition to the communications already made public, the Justice Department on Friday provided Johnson's committee with 384 pages of text messages, according to a letter from the Wisconsin lawmaker that was obtained by The Associated Press.
But, according to the letter, the FBI told the department that its system for retaining text messages sent and received on bureau phones had failed to preserve communications between Strzok and Page over a five-month period between Dec. 14, 2016, and May 17, 2017.
May 17 is a key date in the Russia probe: It's the day Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein tapped Mueller as a special counsel to take over the investigation.
Much occurred during the months the Strzok-Page texts were not retained.
Comey met repeatedly with Trump, the Russia probe intensified and began to focus on former national security adviser Michael Flynn and, in early May, Trump fired Comey.
The FBI previously informed the Justice Department that "many FBI-provided Samsung 5 mobile devices did not capture or store text messages due to misconfiguration issues related to rollouts, provisioning, and software upgrades that conflicted with the FBI's collection capabilities," as a Justice Department official told lawmakers in an earlier letter. As a result, it says, "data that should have been automatically collected and retained for long-term storage and retrieval was not collected."
In Johnson's letter to Wray, he asks whether the FBI has any records of communications between Strzok and Page during that five-month window and whether the FBI had searched their non-FBI phones for additional messages. He also asks for the "scope and scale" of any other records from the Clinton investigation that have been lost.
One of the messages refers to a change in language to Comey's statement closing out the email case involving Clinton, Trump's Democratic opponent in the 2016 presidential election. While an earlier draft of the statement said Clinton and President Barack Obama had an email exchange while Clinton was "on the territory" of a hostile adversary, the reference to Obama was at first changed to "senior government official" and then omitted entirely in the final version.
In another exchange, the two express displeasure about the timing of Lynch's announcement that she would defer to the FBI's judgment on the Clinton investigation. That announcement came days after it was revealed that the attorney general and former President Bill Clinton had an impromptu meeting aboard her plane in Phoenix, though both sides said the email investigation was never discussed.
Strzok said in a July 1 text message that the timing of Lynch's announcement "looks like hell." And Page appears to mockingly refer to Lynch's decision to accept the FBI's conclusion in the case as a "real profile in courag(e) since she knows no charges will be brought."
By that point, multiple news outlets had reported that charges were not likely to be filed in the Clinton case. Days later, Clinton was formally interviewed by the FBI, and Comey announced in a news conference on July 5, 2016, that he would not be recommending any criminal charges in the case.
The new texts also indicate that Strzok and Page occasionally emailed each other using private accounts, rather than government ones, according to the letter, though one of those texts suggests that may have been unintentional.
Information for this article was contributed by Eric Tucker of The Associated Press; and by Devlin Barrett of The Washington Post.
A Section on 01/22/2018
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