New text messages discovered by congressional investigators between two FBI agents who worked on the Trump-Russia investigation reveal that one of them was close friends with the judge who had presided over Michael Flynn’s case before being abruptly recused.
The text messages, handed over by the Justice Department to Congress, show that FBI Special Agent Peter Strzok and his mistress, FBI attorney Lisa Page, had discussed Strzok’s personal relationship with District Court Judge Rudolph Contreras and whether or not it would be a conflict of interest.
According to investigative journalist Sara Carter, Page wrote to Strzok on July 25, 2016, referring to the secret court that grants surveillance warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act: “Rudy is on the FISC! Did you know that? Just appointed two months ago.”
Strzok responds later: “I did. We talked about it before and after. I need to get together with him.”
He also wrote: “….She brought up a good point about being circumspect in talking to him in terms of not placing him into a situation where he’d have to recuse himself.”
Page responded: “I can’t imagine you either one of you could talk about anything in detail meaningful enough to warrant recusal.”
Strzok then expresses skepticism over whether it would not be a conflict of interest, given their friendship.
He joked: “Really? Rudy. I’m in charge of espionage for the FBI. Any espionage FISA comes before him, what should he do? Given his friend oversees them?”
Page wrote back: “Standards for recusal are quite high. I just don’t think this poses an actual conflict. And he doesn’t know what you do?”
Strzok expressed doubt: “Generally he does know what I do. Not the level or scope or area but he’s super thoughtful and rigorous about ethics and conflicts.”
He then said someone — whose name is redacted — suggested he and Contreras meet at a “social setting” for “cover.”
“(redacted) suggested a social setting with others would probably be better than a one on one meeting. I’m sorry, I’m just going to have to invite you to that cocktail party. Of course, you’ll be there. Have to come up with some other work people cover for action.”
Page replied: “Why more? Six is a perfectly fine dinner party.”
It is not clear whether Strzok’s relationship with Contreras had anything to do with his recusal on the case, and some legal experts point out that it is not uncommon for federal prosecutors to know judges outside of the courtroom, particularly those serving in the same area.
But the texts have raised questions for lawmakers exercising oversight of the DOJ.
Rep. Jim Jordan, member of the House Judiciary and Oversight Committees, told Carter: “Why did Contreras recuse himself?”
“Text messages show he had a relationship with Strzok …Why did the DOJ make it difficult for us to get the information? To me, those are the two fundamental questions. We don’t know that answers to either one of those ”
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-SC) told Carter: “I think from my standpoint we’re asking the Department of Justice and the FBI to give us the documents we need to do proper oversight.”
“Failing to be able to provide Congress with those documents in an expeditious manner would certainly strengthen the case for a special prosecutor,” he said. “There is no reason why we cannot get the same documents the Inspector General has.”
Their complaints come as the chairmen of the House Oversight and Judiciary Committees and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee are calling for a second special counsel to look into any improper behavior at the FBI and the DOJ.
Strzok and Page’s text messages occurred July 2016, just as the FBI launched its investigation into the Trump campaign. Later, the FBI would seek a surveillance warrant on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. It is not known which judge signed off on the warrant, though there are unconfirmed reports that it was Contreras.
Strzok and another agent would then interview Flynn in January 2017 about his phone conversations with Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergei Kisylak. Although Strzok and then-FBI Director James Comey reportedly believed that Flynn had not lied or intentionally misled, Flynn was later charged by Special Counsel Robert Mueller with one count of lying.
Strzok himself was removed from Mueller’s team in July 2017 after hundreds of pages of text messages between he and Page were found by the Justice Department inspector general, who was investigating bias in handling the Clinton email investigation and the Trump-Russia investigation. Page had already finished her assignment on the team when they were discovered. The two were reportedly engaged in an extramarital affair.
Strzok and Page had served on the Clinton email investigation, the FBI’s initial investigation into the Trump campaign, and the subsequent special counsel team. In text messages throughout that time, they expressed loathing of Trump and support for Clinton.
Contreras presided over Flynn’s Dec. 1, 2017 hearing in which the former national security adviser pleaded guilty. He was abruptly recused from the case days later, on Dec. 7, 2017, without any public explanation. The new judge, Emmet Sullivan, requested that the special counsel provide any evidence that would be favorable to Flynn’s case.
Some legal experts pointed out it was standard operating procedure for Sullivan, but lawyer Margot Cleveland said he also entered a footnote with the order that explained why evidence favorable to Flynn, even after a guilty plea, could be a basis for throwing out the plea.
Jordan and other members told Carter they were facing restrictive rules from the DOJ in viewing the text messages.
They said the DOJ only allowed them to review the text messages at DOJ headquarters and only highly redacted text messages were allowed to be removed for their oversight of the Justice Department’s handling of the Trump-Russia investigation.
They said of 1.2 million documents collected by the Justice Department Inspector General, the House Oversight Committee has only received 3,162 “unique documents.”