President Donald Trump, seeking to discredit the investigation into whether his 2016 campaign colluded with Russia, claimed without evidence that thousands of text messages exchanged between former FBI officials were deliberately erased.
Trump also said the text messages, between former agent Peter Strzok and bureau lawyer Lisa Page, would have exposed Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe as a hoax, had they not been "purposely and illegally deleted."
Here is Trump’s tweet:
"Biggest outrage yet in the long, winding and highly conflicted Mueller Witch Hunt is the fact that 19,000 demanded Text messages between Peter Strzok and his FBI lover, Lisa Page, were purposely & illegally deleted. Would have explained whole Hoax, which is now under protest!"
Biggest outrage yet in the long, winding and highly conflicted Mueller Witch Hunt is the fact that 19,000 demanded Text messages between Peter Strzok and his FBI lover, Lisa Page, were purposely & illegally deleted. Would have explained whole Hoax, which is now under protest!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 18, 2018
There are some major factual problems with Trump’s claim, we found.
First, a new report from the Justice Department’s internal watchdog suggests the roughly 19,000 messages slipped through the cracks due to technical glitches with the FBI’s data-collection tool on Samsung devices, not because Strzok and Page went around the system.
Second, perhaps most importantly, while the messages were initially not captured, they have since been recovered. Trump’s claim gives the false impression the texts are still unaccounted. In fact, at least a portion of the recovered texts were given to Congress and described in press reports. Some messages between Strzok and Page were published by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General in a June 2018 report.
The inspector general was unable to recover text messages Strzok and Page may have sent using iPhones they were given when they joined Mueller’s team. But a special counsel official who reviewed Strzok’s iPhone before it was reset found it contained no substantive messages.
There is no evidence the text messages show the special counsel investigation is a "hoax."
We reached out to the White House for comment but did not hear back
Following the 2016 election, the Justice Department’s internal watchdog looked into whether the FBI followed protocol when it investigated Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while serving as secretary of state. It published its findings in a June 2018 report.
As part of its inquiry, the Office of Inspector General collected texts exchanged between Strzok and Page, some of which showed hostility toward Trump and a preference for Clinton. (Strzok was later fired from from the FBI and Page has since left.)
The inspector general discovered a five-month gap in the Strzok-Page communications, from mid-December 2016 through mid-May 2017. This prompted the inspector general to conduct a follow-on report to supplement its June 2018 findings. The follow-on report, which further described the inspector general’s forensic efforts to recover the missing Strzok-Page texts, was released Dec. 13.
The inspector general found no evidence Strzok and Page tried to prevent the FBI from collecting their texts.
The watchdog’s findings suggest the most likely reason the texts weren’t captured had to do with technical flaws in the FBI’s data-collection process, not deliberate wrongdoing.
It concluded: "The OIG investigation determined that the FBl's collection tool was not only failing to collect any data on certain phones during particular periods of time, it also does not appear that it was collecting all text messages even when it was generally functioning to collect text messages."
FBI tech specialists cited a number of possible explanations for the text-collection breakdown, from a 2016 software bug, to misconfiguration during the phone’s setup to a range of possible hardware errors, according to the inspector general report.
The collection tool had an estimated failure rate of 20 percent when used with FBI-issued Samsung S5 mobile devices. Both Strzok and Page used the S5 model during the five-month gap, the report found.
Only later in mid-2017 were they issued S7 models "as part of a regular technical refresh and to address issues with the FBl’s text message collection tool," according to the inspector general.
An outside expert hired by the inspector general to assist with the Samsung portion of the investigation concluded "it was unlikely that Strzok and Page attempted to circumvent the FBI's text message collection capabilities," and the watchdog found no evidence they did.
The inspector general also found the "content of the text messages did not appear to be a factor" in the retention practices of Strzok and Page.
Separately from their Samsung devices, the two officials were issued Apple iPhones when they began working as members of the special counsel investigation.
By the time the inspector general obtained their Apple phones, they had been reset to factory settings so they could be reassigned, and contained no data related to the previous owner’s use, the report states.
The special counsel records officer told the inspector general that she reviewed Strzok's DOJ-issued iPhone after he returned it to the special counsel "and determined it contained no substantive text messages." (Upon her departure from the FBI, Page left her iPhone in her office, rather than return it to the special counsel records officer.)
Trump’s tweet seems to suggest the Strzok-Page texts are gone forever — hence why Trump laments that they "would have" exonerated him.
But this overlooks the fact that the inspector general managed to recover thousands of messages that were initially not collected because of the technical snafu described above.
"OIG digital forensic examiners used forensic tools to recover thousands of text messages" from the Samsung S5 devices of Strzok and Page, the report notes.
Forensic experts recovered more than 9,300 texts sent or received from Strzok's S5 phone, about 8,300 of which were sent to or received from Page. They also collected 10,760 texts from Page’s S5 device, about 9,700 of which were communications with Strzok.
It’s impossible to say with precision how many unique texts were recovered. That’s because some are duplicates, and because the inspector general nabbed some message fragments that did not have an associated date or time, and these were not included in the inspector general’s calculation. They also recovered texts from a separate database which added marginally to the overall number of texts the inspector general recovered.
Trump’s reference to 19,000 texts appears to be the result of adding the total texts recovered from Strzok’s and Page’s S5 phones together.
But his suggestion that the messages are permanently lost is wrong. The OIG recovered a total of more than 126,000 lines of text from Strzok and Page.
At least a portion of the recovered texts were given to Congress and described in press reports. Some messages between Strzok and Page were published in the inspector general’s June 2018 report on the FBI’s handling of the Clinton email investigation.
Trump said 19,000 text messages exchanged between former FBI officials that were "purposely and illegally deleted ... would have explained (the special counsel investigation) hoax."
The Justice Department inspector general’s report suggests the texts slipped through the cracks due to technical glitches with the FBI’s data-collection tool, not because Strzok and Page deliberately deleted them.
An outside expert hired by the inspector general concluded "it was unlikely that Strzok and Page attempted to circumvent the FBI's text message collection capabilities," and the watchdog found no evidence they did.
Trump’s suggestion that the messages are permanently lost is wrong. The OIG recovered more than 19,000 messages from the government-issued Samsung phones of Strzok and Page, totaling more than 126,000 lines of text.
And lastly, there is no evidence the texts show that the special counsel investigation is, as Trump called it, a "hoax."
We rate this claim Pants on Fire.