Conservative media is aflame of late with talk of a "secret society" within the FBI which has as its goal the undermining of Donald Trump's presidency. The existence of this secret organization is evidence, they argue, of a Deep State conspiracy against Trump. This is a story as big as Watergate, they say.
So, how did we get here? And how much of this "secret society" talk is factual and how much of it is the stuff of conspiracy theorists?
Let's dig in.
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 2016 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.)
On Monday, in an interview with Fox News Channel, Republican South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy said that he had seen a text message -- the FBI had released a tranche of the texts to Congress over the weekend -- between Page and Strzok on the day after the November 2016 election that said, "Perhaps this is the first meeting of the secret society." Gowdy didn't elaborate other than to say, "So, of course I'm going to want to know: What 'secret society' are you talking about?"
Also on Monday and also on Fox News, Texas Rep. John Ratcliffe, a Republican, said something similar. "We learned today about information that in the immediate aftermath of [Trump's] election, that there may have been a secret society of folks within the Department of Justice and the FBI -- to include Page and Strzok -- that would be working against him," Ratcliffe said.
On Tuesday, again on Fox, Gowdy said that Ratcliffe had found the text on Monday night -- and added that he wasn't sure exactly what "secret society" was referring to. "Now, I have no clue what that means because it was not the phraseology I used," said Gowdy.
Enter Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican, also on Fox on Tuesday, who suggested that the phrase "secret society" referred to something quite specific.
"What this is all about is further evidence of corruption, more than bias," Johnson said. "Corruption of the highest levels of the FBI. The secret society -- we have an informant talking about a group that was holding secret meetings off-site."
Then on Wednesday morning, on -- wait for it -- Fox -- Johnson seemed to back off that claim somewhat. "The term 'secret society' comes from Strzok and Page," he said. "All I said when I read that, it didn't surprise me, because, you know, we are the committee that whistle-blowers come to to talk about all kinds of problems throughout the federal government."
Pressed by the Fox anchor on his claim about off-site meetings of this "secret society," Johnson said this: "I, you know, I have heard, you know, from somebody who has talked to our committee, that there -- there is a group of individuals in the FBI that was holding secret, off-site meetings. And you know, again, that Strzok and Page calling it a certain term, I'm just saying, off-site meetings."
Where is this White House in all of this? "We have not discussed any secret societies and I couldn't speak to their existence, either," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said on Tuesday.
On Wednesday night, the full text of the "secret society" text was revealed -- first by ABC and then viewed by CNN. Here it is -- sent from Page to 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."
Strzok didn't reply. And it doesn't appear that either before or after that text from Page there is any further pickup on the idea of a "secret society," according to ABC.
On Thursday morning, Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores equivocated on whether the "secret society" text was a joke or something more nefarious.
"It's unclear," said Flores on CNN's "New Day." "That's why we wait for an inspector general report, who is investigating this." She added: "A lot of congressmen have seen it and a lot of congressmen have been disturbed by it. And so I think what we're saying is, if you have evidence of wrongdoing, we really need to see that."
All of this is being complicated by partisanship -- the next Watergate! -- and the fact that the emergence of the alleged "secret society" text coincides with the announcement from the FBI that they cannot find five months' worth of text messages between Strzok and Page. The missing months of texts are between December 2016 and May 2017 -- a critical time, according to Republicans. (It turns out that texts are not just missing for Strzok and Page, but for one in ten FBI phones.)
In an impromptu Q and A session with reporters before leaving for Davos, Trump made a direct comparison between Watergate and the missing texts.
"When you look at five months, this is the late great Rose Mary Woods, right?," Trump said. "A step. This is a large scale version." (Rose Mary Woods was Richard Nixon's private secretary who "accidentally" erased 18 minutes of White House tapes covering the days immediately following the Watergate break-in.)
So: "secret society" + "off-site meetings" + five months of missing texts = c-o-n-s-p-i-r-a-c-y. Or: "secret society" + "off-site meetings" + five months of missing texts = Watergate 2: Now with more corruption!
There's no question that how and why the FBI lost thousands of texts over a 5-month period deserves more scrutiny. But to assume that the lost texts, the words "secret society" and one person telling Ron Johnson that the FBI has off-site, secret meetings are a) deeply connected and/or b) indicative of a massive anti-Trump scheme within the upper ranks of the FBI remains something of a leap. To put it mildly.
This post has been updated to reflect additional reporting.