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.
"It's a real possibility," Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, told CNN.
Republicans have seized on the exchange between FBI lawyer Lisa Page and FBI agent Peter Strzok, which was sent after the 2016 presidential election, as potential evidence of an anti-Trump bias at the agency. Strzok was a member of the team investigating Hillary Clinton's email server and, later, a member of Robert Mueller's special counsel team looking into Russia's attempted interference in the 2016 election.
"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," Page wrote to Strzok in a text message.
Sources familiar with the exchange told CNN later Thursday that the message contains a reference to a gag gift of Vladimir Putin-themed calendars that one of the employees purchased for those working on the early stage of the Russia investigation.
Later Thursday, Johnson would not comment further about the "secret society" text and whether he owes an apology.
"We will see what the next texts say," he replied. The Justice Department's inspector general informed lawmakers Thursday that a trove of missing text messages exchanged between the two FBI employees has been recovered.
Johnson seized on the "secret society" reference to call into question the objectivity of Mueller's investigation earlier in the week. Speaking to Fox News on Tuesday, Johnson suggested bias and potential corruption at the upper echelons of the agency.
"What this is all about is further evidence of corruption -- more than bias -- but corruption at the highest levels of the FBI," Johnson said.
The Republican senator said at the time he obtained his information from an informant.
"And that secret society -- we have an informant talking about a group that were holding secret meetings off-site. There's so much smoke here, there's so much suspicion," Johnson said.
Johnson confirmed to CNN Wednesday he spoke to an informant who told him about the "off-site" meetings FBI managers were holding. But he acknowledged not knowing what the meetings were about, suggesting he wanted to dig into the matter.
Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, the top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, wrote a letter to Johnson Thursday calling for him to share the evidence he had obtained about the text message with her -- along with what appeared to be a hint of sarcasm over his allegations.
"You have now made serious and damaging allegations," McCaskill wrote. "I would assume that you would never make those kinds of allegations without serious and substantial hard evidence. If the committee has any evidence that the FBI is, as you have stated, biased and corrupt at the highest levels, I assume that evidence is strong in both quality and quantity, and extends far beyond a casual mention in a text message between two agents who were involved in personal crosstalk. And as ranking member of this committee, I deserve access to this evidence."
The Justice Department's inspector general informed lawmakers Thursday that a trove of missing text messages exchanged between the two FBI employees has been recovered.
Strzok and Page's attorneys have declined to comment to CNN.