In Context: Ron Johnson's 'secret society'

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., made an explosive charge, then backtracked. (Todd Ponath photo)
U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., made an explosive charge, then backtracked. (Todd Ponath photo)

On Jan. 23, 2018, Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson charged that an informant had told the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which he heads, that a "secret society" was set up within the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice shortly after Donald Trump was elected president.

Johnson described it as "corruption at the highest levels of the FBI."

But then it was reported that Johnson was walking back his comments. Indeed, two days later, he said the original "secret society" reference might have been made in jest.

So, what’s this all about? Let’s go to In Context, our feature that fleshes out remarks that make headlines.

The backdrop

As CNN’s Chris Cillizza explains:

This all starts with text messages exchanged between two senior FBI officials named Peter Strzok and Lisa Page during and after the 2016 election. Strzok was a member of the FBI team investigating Hillary Clinton's email server and, later, a member of Bob Mueller's special counsel operation looking into Russia's attempted interference in the 2016 election.

Strzok was removed from the special counsel investigation in the summer of [2017] after some of the text messages between he and Page showing a clear anti-Trump bias were found in an internal investigation. (Strzok and Page were also involved romantically.)

Now let’s go to what Johnson has said.

First interview

Here’s the key part of the Jan. 23, 2018 exchange between Johnson and Fox News "Special Report" host Bret Baier:

Johnson: That secret society -- we have an informant that's talking about a group that were holding secret meetings offsite. There is so much smoke here, there's so much suspicion --

Baier: Boy, let's stop there. A secret society -- secret meetings offsite of the Justice Department?

Johnson: Correct.

Baier: And you have an informant saying that?

Johnson: Yes.

Baier: Is there anything more about that?

Johnson: No. We have to dig into it.

Compare those remarks to those Johnson made the next day.

Second Fox interview

Here’s an exchange between Johnson and Fox News anchor Bill Hemmer on Jan. 24, 2018:

Hemmer: I just want to nail something down. Did your informant confirm that these off-site meetings took place?

Johnson: No. Listen, I never even, I -- the term secret society comes from Strzok and Page. All I said, when I read that, it didn’t surprise me because we are the committee the whistleblowers come to, to talk about all kinds of problems throughout the federal government. And so, I had heard of a group of people within the FBI holding secret off-site meetings. So, I was just kind of connecting the dots, so that didn’t surprise me when I heard that term. But, again, that’s Strzok and Page’s term, not mine.

Hemmer: To be clear, then, are you backing off of what was spoken last night?

Johnson: No, I’m saying exactly the same thing. I have heard, from somebody who has talked to our committee, that there is a group of individuals in the FBI that was -- they were holding secret off-site meetings. Again, it’s Strzok and Page calling it a certain term; I’m just saying off-site meetings.

Backtracking

Later that night, ABC News revealed more about the texts. According to its report, one text from Page to Strzok read:

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.

The report said "it's unclear if the message's reference to a ‘secret society’ may have been made in jest ….That text stands alone in the series of messages obtained by ABC News – with no apparent tie to other messages sent before or after it."

The following day, Jan. 25, 2018, CNN reporter Manu Raju tweeted this:

Ron Johnson, who raised alarms this week about the FBI agents’ "secret society" text, just told me: "It’s a real possibility" the text was written in jest.

The same day, Johnson had been interviewed on National Public Radio by "Morning Edition" host David Greene. Greene noted that Johnson initially talked about "corruption at the highest levels of the FBI" but then said the "secret society" reference might have been made in jest:

Greene: I’m just wondering if you feel you might have jumped to conclusions here.

Johnson: No. All I was connecting is -- I have all kinds of people come in front of our committee, giving us information. And I had heard that there were off-site meetings. So, I was just connecting the dots there. It could be a joke; those off-site meetings could be completely harmless.