Congressional Republicans demanded answers on Friday as to whether there “was a widespread intentional effort” to wipe the mobile devices of multiple people on former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team during the Russia probe, and suggested this could amount to “anticipatory obstruction of justice.”
The calls come after newly released records from the Justice Department showed that at least several dozen phones belonging to members of Mueller’s team were wiped of information because of forgotten passcodes, irreparable screen damage, loss of the device, intentional deletion or other reasons—all before the Justice Department inspector general’s office could review the devices.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, penned a letter to Attorney General Bill Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray on Friday, pressing for details on what actions were taken to recover material deleted from the mobile devices assigned to Mueller’s team.
“It appears that Special Counsel Mueller’s team may have deleted federal records that could be key to better understanding their decision-making process as they pursued their investigation and wrote their report,” Grassley wrote. “Indeed, many officials apparently deleted the records after the DOJ Inspector General began his inquiry into how the Department mishandled Crossfire Hurricane.”
Grassley wrote that “based on this new information, the number of times and the stated reasons for the deletions calls into question whether or not it was a widespread intentional effort.”
Grassley first raised concerns about the Mueller team’s use of text messages in 2017, after the Justice Department inspector general discovered that texts sent by former FBI agent and member of Mueller’s office Peter Strzok were politically charged.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., on Friday also demanded answers, telling Fox News he was “outraged by it.”
“I’m not a lawyer, but I am aware of the concept of anticipatory obstruction of justice,” Johnson told Fox News in a text message, saying the action of “accidentally wiping a phone because you entered the wrong password too many times” makes him “HIGHLY skeptical,” and a dozen people making “the same mistake is COMPLETELY unbelievable.”
“This needs to be fully investigated,” he said, adding that he has requested a phone call with Wray on Friday to discuss.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Capitol, House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Devin Nunes, R-Calif., quipped that the lost data was an “amazing coincidence.”
“It’s an amazing coincidence that all these professional investigators kept accidentally wiping their phones,” Nunes told Fox News. “You’d think these people could come up with a more believable excuse for hiding evidence.”
The new Justice Department records were released after a lawsuit from conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch.
The documents show that Mueller deputy Andrew Weissmann “accidentally wiped” his phone twice after entering the wrong passcode too many times in March 2018. Lawyer James Quarles’ phone “wiped itself” without his intervention, the records say.
The records indicate attorney Greg Andres’ phone was also wiped due to a forgotten passcode. And they say the phones of both Mueller deputy Kyle Freeny and Rush Atkinson were wiped accidentally after they entered the wrong passcode too many times.
The records say that a phone belonging to FBI lawyer Lisa Page – whose anti-Trump texts with Strzok were of interest to investigators — was restored to factory settings when the inspector general’s office received it.
Other officials, whose names are redacted, claim to have unintentionally restored their phone to its factory settings, deleting all records of communication.
Next to the name of one redacted person, the record says: “Phone was in airplane mode, no passcode provided, data unable to be recovered so had to be wiped.”
Mueller’s investigation yielded no evidence of criminal conspiracy or coordination between the Trump campaign and Russian officials during the election, although it did find that the Russian government “interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systemic fashion.” The question of whether Trump obstructed justice was not answered, but it did state that the final report “does not exonerate [Trump]” on this matter.
The OIG opened an investigation into possible bias in the origins of the Russia investigation, but determined that the FBI complied with policies in launching the politically explosive probe. Still, the OIG flagged “significant concerns with how certain aspects of the investigation were conducted and supervised.”
The report concluded that investigators found no intentional misconduct or political bias surrounding the probe’s launch and efforts to seek a controversial Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant to monitor former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page in the early months of the investigation. But the same report faulted the FBI over numerous errors in the application process. The IG probe identified at least 17 “significant inaccuracies and omissions” in the Page applications and said they would launch a new audit into the FISA process. IG Michael Horowitz and his investigators were at times sharply critical of the bureau’s handling of the case, including for failing to share information that would have undercut claims in those documents.
Meanwhile, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., slammed Mueller’s team on Fox News’ “Hannity,” saying: “If you can’t manage your own phone, why should we trust you to investigate a crime?”
Graham added: “The question is, did they obstruct justice, did they intentionally delete information from their phone because [Inspector General Michael] Horowitz was on the case?”
Graham said that question should be considered by U.S. Attorney for Connecticut John Durham, who is currently investigating the origins of the Russia probe.
“My job, as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, is to find out how the Department of Justice and the FBI got Crossfire Hurricane so wrong, why they lied to the FISA court, [and] to make sure it never happens again,” Graham said.