Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., joined by attorneys Paul D. Clement, far left, and Rick Esenberg, second from left, announces that he has filed a lawsuit to block the federal government from helping to pay for health care coverage for members of Congress and their staffs, Monday, Jan. 6, 2014.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

The Republican focus on a ‘secret society’ starts to unravel

Updated

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), the chairman of House Oversight Committee, got the ball rolling this week, pointing to a leaked text message between FBI agent Peter Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page. According to Gowdy, the message, stripped of any context, referenced a “secret society.”

The Rachel Maddow Show, 1/24/18, 9:10 PM ET

DoJ warns Nunes against political stunts with classified material

Rachel Maddow reports on a letter from Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd to Rep. Devin Nunes, cautioning him that whatever political stunt he is trying to pull with classified material, he risks endangering national security in doing so.
Rachel Maddow reports on a letter from Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd to Rep. Devin Nunes, cautioning him that whatever political stunt he is trying to pull with classified material, he risks endangering national security in doing so.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) went further, referencing not only a “secret society,” but also “an informant” who’s apparently told Congress about “a group holding secret meetings off-site.”

The Wisconsin Republican shared some related thoughts yesterday.

Johnson backtracked somewhat on Wednesday, saying he had merely “heard” about the existence of a secret society and did not have direct evidence of such a rump organization within the FBI.

“All I said is when I read those in those texts, that’s Strozk and Page’s term,” Johnson said when pressed by reporters on Capitol Hill on whether he believed such a group existed. “I have heard there was a group of managers in the FBI that were holding meetings offsite. That’s all I know.”

The GOP senator added this morning that he’s not trying to discredit the FBI, but he thinks the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails was a “sham.”

Johnson’s bizarre rhetoric notwithstanding, we can now safely say there was, in reality, no “secret society” lurking in the shadows at the FBI, eager to undermine Donald Trump.

[O]ne of those people, a Democratic congressional aide, maintained that Republicans’ insinuations that the texts also showed signs of a conspiracy was based on cherry-picking and portrayed as sinister phrases that, in context, were instead tongue-in-cheek banter.

For example, the aide said the reference to a “secret society” the day after the election occurred in an exchange between Mr. Strzok and Ms. Page in which one noted: “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.”

Another person familiar with that exchange said the team had bought Russia-theme calendars to give out to the agents and analysts investigating Russia’s interference in the election, and in light of the election results, Ms. Page was making a dark joke about the gag gifts.

In other words, the hysteria about a conspiratorial “secret society” was a joke. Powerful Republican committee chairmen on Capitol Hill generated quite a bit of excitement over a leaked, out-of-context text message that wasn’t meant to be taken seriously.

If our politics made more sense, the embarrassment Gowdy and Johnson would feel after peddling this nonsense would not soon fade.