Fact-checking Matt Gaetz's CNN comments about Immaculate Conception, missing FBI texts

CNN's Chris Cuomo and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., clash over newly released text messages between two FBI agents discussing a "secret society." (Source: CNN)

In a fiery interview, CNN host Chris Cuomo challenged U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., on his claims about the FBI’s "secret society" and the strength of his analogy comparing missing texts between officials with the Immaculate Conception doctrine.

The pair started by discussing the reported contents of a secret memo of the House Intelligence Committee that is supposed to outline abuse of the process to obtain foreign-intelligence surveillance warrants. While they agreed the memo should be released to the public, the conversation diverged into other criticisms Gaetz has of the FBI’s special counsel investigation into Russia.

Their Jan. 24 back-and-forth provided more than 12 minutes of questionable claims. Here’s a fact-checkers take on the interview’s un-holiest moments.

More context needed about ‘damning’ text messages between FBI agents

Gaetz and President Donald Trump have held up missing text messages between FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page as reason to discredit the special counsel investigation. On CNN, Gaetz said the deleted texts were "damning" for the FBI, implying it was an intentional coverup.

"Don't you find it a bit interesting that the black hole starts right when Obama launches the counterintelligence investigation in August, and then it magically ends when — like the day Mueller is appointed?" Gaetz asked. "That's, like, a really conspicuous time for that to occur."

As Cuomo said, there’s not a lot we can say about the texts right now because we haven’t seen the report. Here’s what we know so far.

In December, news outlets started reporting on disparaging texts about Trump between Page and Strzok, who later went on to join Robert Mueller’s team looking into Russia.

According to CNN, the Justice Department inspector general reviewed a total of 50,000 texts on FBI servers between Strzok and Page, who were romantically involved. But 5,000 messages over five months (Dec. 14, 2016, to May 17, 2017) were unaccounted for.

Fox News, and others, have reported that those missing text messages were lost in a technical glitch that affected 10 percent of FBI employees. Also, Mueller removed Strzok from the investigation in the summer of 2017 amid the internal investigation.

The day after the Cuomo-Gaetz interview, the Justice Department inspector general wrote a letter saying it "succeeded in using forensic tools to recover text messages from FBI devices," including those between Strzok and Page. The letter did not disclose how many were recovered, however.

"Secret society" text less conclusive than Gaetz lets on

Gaetz held up a text from Page to Strzok that mentioned a "secret society" as more evidence of a strategy to undermine the Trump presidency, ignoring that the reference could easily be benign.

In one of the reported texts from ABC News, Page texted Strzok: "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."

Gaetz latched on to that to show internal FBI corruption, saying that "a secret society is a group of people that get together in secret to plan." (Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., described the society as evidence of "corruption at the highest levels of the FBI" but later walked it back.)

"The notion that a secret society is just an off-the-cuff comment is laughable," Gaetz said. "I can't even believe you would make that with a straight face."

As Cuomo pointed out, it’s not clear what the two meant.

"You have no idea what the context was for that statement, and you have no real proof that any such secret society exists," Cuomo said.

Cuomo tells Gaetz that "facts matter" on Immaculate Conception

Toward the end of the interview, Cuomo called on Gaetz to explain his previous comment on Fox News, where he referred to the missing text messages as "the greatest coincidence since the Immaculate Conception."

"Where is the analogy?" Cuomo asked. "That’s what I don’t understand. What do you think happened with the Immaculate Conception?"’

Gaetz explained that he is a Christian, and that "Immaculate Conception was how Jesus was born."

Cuomo then Sunday-schooled Gaetz on the actual definition, saying "facts matter, congressman."

Immaculate Conception is commonly confused with the virgin birth of Jesus. However, according to Catholic teachings, it actually describes Mary’s conception in her mother’s womb without "the stain of original sin." Although this idea existed for quite some time, the Immaculate Conception doctrine wasn’t established until 1854 by Pope Pius IX.

Mitchell Reddish, the chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Stetson University, said Immaculate Conception is not a universally held belief among Protestants. That might explain why Gaetz, a Baptist, said it referred to Jesus’ birth.

Still, Reddish said, the virgin birth of Jesus and Immaculate Conception are completely different.

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