FBI Secret Society? Rush Limbaugh, Some Republicans, Troubled By Strzok-Page Text

FBI agents investigate the scene of a violent incident in New York City. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Updated | It was an astonishing question, one that could serve as the premise for a John Grisham thriller or a summer blockbuster. Instead, it was posed to White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders during Tuesday's press briefing.

The questioner was John Gizzi of Newsmax. The question was simple yet confounding: Does President Donald Trump "believe there is a secret society within the Federal Bureau of Investigation?"

Sanders didn't bother suppressing a smile.

"No, we have not discussed any secret societies," she answered, "and I couldn't speak to their existence, either."

But for some on the right, the notion of a secret society within the U.S. intelligence community has become a serious concern, a variation on the longstanding fear that a so-called Deep State composed of career bureaucrats seeks to undermine the Trump presidency. The notion of a "secret society" within the FBI—however dubious and unfounded—speaks to the intensity with which some seek to undermine the agency that could unearth damaging information about the Trump campaign and presidency.

Just before the 2016 election, some alleged there was a powerful pro-Trump faction inside the FBI, one involving associates of former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

Yet the existence of a secret anti-Trump society within the bureau was apparently first suggested by Representative Trey Gowdy, Republican of South Carolina, on Fox News on Monday. Gowdy was discussing text messages exchanged in 2016 by FBI agent Peter Strzok and agency lawyer Lisa Page, with whom he was having an affair. Some of the messages are disparaging of Trump. Strzok investigated Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server when she was the Secretary of State. He was later part of the investigation into allegations of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. He was removed from that investigation in the summer by special counsel Robert Mueller.

Gowdy referred to a message between Page and Strzok sent the day after the election. "Perhaps this is the first meeting of the secret society," the message says.

"I'm going to want to know what secret society you are talking about, because you're supposed to be investigating objectively the person who just won the Electoral College,' Gowdy said. Standing next to Gowdy was Representative John Ratcliffe, Republican of Texas. "When folks speak in those terms, they need to come forward to explain the context," he said.

Conspiracies about the FBI are not new. Nor are ominous suggestions that the United States government is a plaything of the Freemasons or the Illuminati. For the most part, however, this kind of paranoia doesn't make it into the mainstream political discourse.

In 2018, however, the notion of an intelligence cabal seems perfectly plausible, at least to some. Among the believers is right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh, who last fall suggested that Hurricane Irma was a liberal conspiracy. On Tuesday, Limbaugh treated the "secret society" reference in the Page-Strzok emails as a literal reference, not as a tongue-in-cheek joke between two lovers.

"I'm not surprised there's a secret society within the establishment that was designed to get rid of Trump, to deny Trump the election," he said. "Hillary Clinton losing threw the biggest wrench in these people's plans, and they had the fear. They were aware she could lose. But now we've got a secret society—DOJ, FBI, intelligence community—some of it directly in touch with the Obama White House. No doubt in my mind."

Limbaugh also asserted, without offering any evidence, that the "Deep State" secret society within the intelligence community manufactured reports that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction in order to embarrass President George W. Bush, who used that determination to send the nation into a protracted armed conflict in 2003.

Furor over the Page-Strzok affair, and what it may say about bias in the FBI, continues to grow among conservative media outlets, and among some social media users, including the president. He, in particular, is upset because the FBI does not have several of the messages between Page and Strzok.

In one of the biggest stories in a long time, the FBI now says it is missing five months worth of lovers Strzok-Page texts, perhaps 50,000, and all in prime time. Wow!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 23, 2018

If the #FBI doesn’t want a repeat of the Hoover years, they better do something about these two agents and any of their possible enablers NOW. This cannot be fudged. The integrity of a great organization depends on a thorough and unbiased investigation. https://t.co/pocZKvMAIk

— James Woods (@RealJamesWoods) January 23, 2018

.@SenRonJohnson on alleged 'secret society' mentioned in @FBI agents' texts: "That 'secret society' - we have an informant that's talking about a group, they were holding secret meetings offsite." #SpecialReport https://t.co/0NPVFhqWiY pic.twitter.com/NaXelnfaJP

— Fox News (@FoxNews) January 23, 2018

The controversy comes as President Trump prepares to depart for the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Coincidentally, some conspiracy theorists believe that Davos is "part of a sinister plan by a world elite to rule the world," as The Economist once put it. No such plan has ever been uncovered.

This story has been updated to include reports of a pro-Trump faction within the FBI

Editor's Picks

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts