Ron Johnson asks DOJ watchdog to investigate Mueller team phone deletions

A top Republican asked Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz to open an investigation into new revelations that numerous members of special counsel Robert Mueller’s team apparently wiped or otherwise deleted data from their government-issued phones.

“Records indicate that at least 15 phones were wiped for various reasons including, forgotten passwords, screen damage, deletion, and device misplacement,” Senate Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson wrote in a Friday letter. “These reports are troubling and raise concerns about record retention and transparency. Therefore, I respectfully request that your office open an investigation into this matter to determine what, why, and how information was wiped, whether any wrongdoing occurred, and who these devices belonged to.”

The disclosure, which shows at least two dozen Mueller team phones had their data deleted or lost in various ways, was made up of 87 pages of partially redacted Justice Department records released through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group.

The Wisconsin Republican posed four questions to the DOJ watchdog: “When and how was your office made aware of this matter? What, if any, steps did your office take to confirm whether information on these phones had been wiped? Did these phones have text message capabilities? Does your office have the capability to retrieve the information from these phones?” The senator asked for answers by next Friday.

Many of the names are redacted, but the records show that Andrew Weissmann, a key prosecutor on the Mueller team who has gone on to become an MSNBC legal analyst, said he accidentally wiped the data from his government-issued phones two separate times. Notes from March 2018 said that he “entered password too many times and wiped his phone,” and notes from September 2018 indicated that he “accidentally wiped cell phone — data lost.” The DOJ notes recounted similar issues related to information being wiped from phones belonging to Mueller prosecutors Greg Andres, Kyle Freeny, L. Rush Atkinson, and James Quarles.

Many of the other names are redacted but show many similar instances with the Mueller team member phones: “in airplane mode, no passcode provided, data unable to be recovered, so had to be wiped,” “employee tried to incorrect enter password too many times, and the phone was wiped of all data,” “forgot password to phone and the phone reset itself,” “phone was wiped due to a forgotten passcode to the phone,” “phone was wiped prior to review because phone was in airplane mode and the passcode was not provided,” “phone was accidentally wiped prior to records review,” “phone was accidentally wiped via password input,” and “had to be wiped due to incorrect password.”

Mueller’s April 2019 report concluded that Russia interfered in 2016 in a “sweeping and systematic fashion” but “did not establish” any criminal conspiracy between Russia and President Trump’s campaign.

The newly released notes on former FBI lawyer Lisa Page show that her phone was misplaced by the FBI and had been “restored to factory settings” when the DOJ watchdog received it. The notes for fired FBI agent Peter Strzok state that “no substantive texts, notes, or reminders” were found on that government-issued phone.

Strzok was removed from Mueller’s team early in his investigation and later fired from the bureau after his texts with Page, with whom he was having an affair, were discovered. In one Aug. 6, 2016, exchange, Page said, “Trump should go f himself.” Strzok responded, “F Trump.” Two days later, Page texted, “(Trump’s) not ever going to become president, right? Right?!” Strzok then replied, “No. No he’s not. We’ll stop it.”

Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, also asked the Justice Department and the FBI for the unredacted versions of the new FOIA records, all records including text messages from the Mueller team’s government phones, and all records related to the Mueller team’s explanations for the phone data deletions.

Horowitz released a report in December that criticized the Justice Department and the FBI for at least 17 “significant errors and omissions” related to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants against former Trump campaign associate Carter Page and for the bureau’s reliance on the Democratic-funded discredited dossier compiled by British ex-spy Christopher Steele.

U.S. Attorney John Durham got his first guilty plea last month from former FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith, whose anti-Trump texts were also unearthed by Horowitz, pleaded guilty to a false statements charge for altering a CIA email in 2017 that helped justify the continued wiretapping of Carter Page by fraudulently adding that he was “not a source” for the agency when the CIA had told Clinesmith and the bureau that he was an “operational contact” for it.

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