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Sen. Johnson backs off 'secret society' claim

The chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee acknowledged Thursday that a reference made between two FBI employees of a "secret society" could have been said in jest as opposed to evidence of an anti-Donald Trump plot.

Posted: Jan 26, 2018 10:14 AM
Updated: Jan 26, 2018 10:16 AM

On Tuesday, Ron Johnson was hot on the trail of corruption at the highest levels of the FBI.

"What this is all about is further evidence of corruption, more than bias," the Wisconsin Republican said in an interview with Fox News Channel. "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."

Johnson was referring to text messages exchanged between two senior FBI officials named Peter Strzok and Lisa Page during and after the 2016 election. In a part of one of those texts, Page wrote this: "Perhaps this is the first meeting of the secret society."

That, plus a source telling Johnson that the FBI was holding off-site meetings, convinced the Wisconsin senator -- as well as Reps. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, John Ratliffe of Texas and Matt Gaetz of Florida -- that something nefarious might well be going on, part and parcel of the "deep state" theory advanced by President Trump and others.

On Wednesday, Johnson was still beating the conspiracy drum -- albeit slightly more softly. "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," he said in an interview on Fox. "And you know, again, that Strzok and Page calling it a certain term, I'm just saying, off-site meetings."

On Thursday -- yes, less than 48 hours after alleging corruption at the FBI -- Johnson was singing a very different tune. "It's a real possibility" that the "secret society" text was a joke, Johnson told my colleague Manu Raju.

He would not comment further about the secret society text and whether he owes an apology, according to Raju. Johnson would only say, "We will see what the next texts say."

What changed? The full context of Page's "secret society" text, which was sent the day after the election, came out. And here it is: "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." According to CNN reporting, the calendars Page references were a Vladimir Putin-themed gag gift. And there was never any mention before or after of the "secret society" in texts between Strzok and Page.

What else changed? The FBI, which had lost five months of texts, including those between Strzok and Page, found the Strzok-Page texts (and other texts from other people not at all involved with the Clinton or Russia investigations) on Thursday.

The point here is this: Johnson was way, way, way out over his skis earlier in the week. Consider:

1. The "secret society" quote was clearly without context. Even people like Gowdy admitted that he was unsure what "secret society" meant and whether it was a joke or not.

2. There was not and is not any evidence that the alleged off-site meetings cited by Johnson have anything to do with the "secret society" mention -- even if it was not, as now appears extremely likely, meant in jest.

Given the uncertainty surrounding these texts, Johnson's jumping to conclusions is remarkable. He is a sitting US senator who, based on a part of a text and someone telling him about alleged off-site meetings at the FBI, concluded that there was "corruption of the highest levels of the FBI."

That's serious stuff -- and the sort of thing that senators (and members of Congress) need to be above. The problem with using snippets of several different unrelated things to draw a conclusion about broad-scale corruption is that it makes it more difficult for actual moments of corruption or unethical activity in the future to be taken seriously.

Call it the senator who cried wolf.

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