What you need to know about the “media leak strategy,” the latest attack on the Mueller probe

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

President Donald Trump pushed the latest effort by congressional Republicans to undermine special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation in a series of Tuesday morning tweets. His comments propelled into the mainstream conversation a speculative theory about a former FBI official’s vague texts that had been heavily promoted by the right-wing press.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) sent a letter yesterday to the Justice Department alleging that FBI and DOJ officials were engaged in a “coordinated effort” to leak information about the federal investigation into Russian election interference in order to damage the Trump administration in its early days.

Meadows says he drew this conclusion based on texts from former FBI official Peter Strzok to former Justice Department official Lisa Page, both of whom were pushed out at the culmination of an effort to discredit them by congressional Republicans, right-wing media, and the president himself.

But there’s little reason to believe Meadows’ interpretation of the texts and every reason to doubt him: He’s the chair of the far-right, Trumpist Freedom Caucus and a key player in the congressional opposition to the Mueller probe, which has frequently involved taking Strzok’s and Page’s texts out of context to suggest the president is the victim of a nefarious plot.

Meadows sent a letter to DOJ baselessly alleging malfeasance

“We’ve received NEW text messages from the DOJ, once again suggesting our suspicions are true--senior officials at FBI/DOJ selectively leaked info to the media about ongoing investigations related to the Trump admin,” Meadows tweeted yesterday evening, along with an image of a letter he said he had “just sent” to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

The Meadows letter bases this conclusion on texts from Strzok to Page in April 2017:

Meadows puts these texts in the context of an April 11, 2017, Washington Post story which revealed that the FBI in October 2016 had obtained a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor communications of former Trump adviser Carter Page, suggesting that the Strzok and Lisa Page texts show an effort to “place derogatory information in the media to justify a continued probe.”

Right-wing media outlets swallow Meadows’ spin

By the time Meadows tweeted the letter, right-wing media outlets had already begun publishing credulous articles on its contents.

Meadows’ charges set off a flurry of coverage in the conservative press, with articles amplifying his interpretation of the texts quickly popping up at FoxNews.com, Washington Examiner, The Washington Times, The Daily Caller, Townhall, and New York Post.

Both Lou Dobbs and Sean Hannity, Fox hosts with close ties to the president who have turned their shows into nightly assaults on the Mueller probe, did multiple segments on the story last night. Hannity’s audience heard the texts described as evidence of “an illicit and illegal scheme to frame Donald Trump” and an effort to “destroy the president.” On Dobbs’ show, the story was more proof Trump needs to declassify the Carter Page FISA warrants.

The Fox coverage brought the story to the attention of the most powerful Fox fan on the planet. Beginning shortly after 7 a.m. EST, Trump sent three tweets highlighting a segment from last night’s edition Dobbs’ program about the texts (in between the first and second tweets, the president’s Twitter feed commemorated the 17th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks).

Trump’s tweeted quotes from one of the Dobbs segments pushed the story into the national press.

There’s no reason to buy Meadows’ interpretation of the texts

The president and his congressional allies, cheered on by their friends in the right-wing press, have produced a series of conspiracy theories to smear the law enforcement officials scrutinizing Trump and his associates. Page and Strzok, who played key roles in the early stages of the investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election, have been key targets of that effort. Congressional Republicans have trickled out texts that the pair sent to each other for months, presenting their comments in the worst possible light in order to undermine their credibility and, thus, the credibility of the Mueller probe.

At times these attacks have strayed into the comically overwrought; an inside joke between the two about a “secret society” was warped into evidence of massive anti-Trump corruption.

Meadows seems to be engaged in a similar exercise.

His first point is a text Strzok sent Page in which he said that he wanted to “discuss media leak strategy with DOJ.” The congressman, with no evidence to support him, leaps to the conclusion that Strzok meant that he wanted to discuss how to leak details of an ongoing investigation into Trump associates to the media. The right-wing press follows along, treating Meadows’ theory as the only plausible interpretation of Strzok’s comment.

But that’s absurd. We’re supposed to believe that Strzok is canny enough to be masterminding a conspiracy against the president, but dumb enough to conduct that conspiracy over his work phone? If Strzok and Page were literally texting each other about how to conduct leaks to the media, shouldn’t Meadows have been able to find more specific cases in which they actually did that?

The explanation Strzok’s lawyer put out this morning seems more plausible -- they were discussing a department-wide strategy to PREVENT leaks to the press. (Indeed, a former Senate staffer has been indicted in connection with revealing Carter Page’s identity to a reporter.)

Meadows’ second point is so speculative that he needs to lead with his own spin on the texts.

According to the letter, Strzok sent texts “congratulat[ing] Lisa Page on a job well done while referring to two derogatory articles about Carter Page.” But in what should be an obvious tell, Meadows doesn’t provide the full texts at issue, instead chopping them up in a confusing fashion and mixing them together with his explanation of what they mean. If Meadows’ interpretation is clearly correct, he should be able to provide the actual language Strzok used.

Is “well done, Page” a reference to Lisa Page or a sarcastic jab at Carter Page? It seems pretty clear that Meadows’ entire argument rests on it being the former, but the available context suggests it could be the latter.

Meadows, his right-wing media allies, and the president don’t really care which interpretation is correct. They just want to dirty up the FBI in order to protect the Trump administration. This tactic may be blowing up in their face, but they’ll just move on to the next nonsensical hoax.