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.
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 this 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.
Here's what we know:
1. Ratcliffe apparently found a text between Strzok and Page in which the term "secret society" is used.
2. Johnson says he has an informant that says there were off-site, secret meetings of some FBI officials.
Here's what we don't know:
1. What's the context of the "secret society" reference in the text chain? Is it a joke? A reference to a real anti-Trump secret society? Something totally unrelated to Trump? We don't know because we haven't seen the full texts.
2. Who is Johnson's informant? Is that person simply disgruntled? A real whistle-blower? Someone talking a big game with not much to back it up? A guy with the real goods?
3. Are these alleged off-site meetings at all tied to the "secret society" reference in the texts? It seems entirely plausible to me that the FBI has any number of off-site meetings. Could it be that the off-site meetings Johnson's informant is telling him about are not at all connected to the "secret society"?
In short, there's more that we don't know than we do know.
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.
"The omission of text messages between December 2016 and May 2017, a critical gap encompassing the FBI's Russia investigation, is equally concerning," said Gowdy, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes in a statement on the missing texts. "Rather than clearing up prior FBI and DOJ actions, these recently produced documents cause us to further question the credibility and objectivity of certain officials at the FBI."
So: "secret society" + "off-site meetings" + five months of missing texts = c-o-n-s-p-i-r-a-c-y.
There's no question that all three of these matters need more light shined on them. But to assume that these three things 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.
This post has been updated to reflect additional reporting.