Two Republican senators are pressing for answers about apparently missing phones belonging to special counsel Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia investigative team that the Justice Department cannot locate, per its watchdog.
Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin told Attorney General Merrick Garland they are “asking the Justice Department for more information and records” after learning that the DOJ “could not locate 59 of the 96 phones” used by Mueller’s team and after discovering that the department “failed to review over twenty phones for federal record preservation.”
DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz wrote to Johnson and Grassley in May, noting in a letter obtained by the Washington Examiner that the DOJ's Justice Management Division took possession of 79 of 96 Mueller team phones in a property transfer from the special counsel's office in June 2019. A DOJ iPhone record review spreadsheet documented that only approximately 74 of the phones were reviewed for records. Horowitz said that records such as notes and text messages were sent to DOJ or FBI email systems for preservation.
Horowitz detailed the location of some of the phones, including the devices belonging to former FBI lawyer Lisa Page and fired FBI special agent Peter Strzok, which remain secured in a safe at the DOJ, but the inspector general said the DOJ's JMD currently does not know the whereabouts of 59 of the 96 team phones.
The senators told Garland they are “seeking further clarity on what steps the department has taken to recover the missing phones and the underlying records.”
Johnson had previously asked Horowitz to open an investigation into revelations that numerous members of Mueller’s team apparently wiped or otherwise deleted data from their government-issued phones and that “these reports are troubling and raise concerns about record retention and transparency.”
The senators are now asking Garland to provide them with the “SCO Inventory and Property Transfer Documentation” and any related records in possession of the JMD, the “names of all SCO employees whose cell phones were not reviewed by JMD” for records, all records on the number of texts sent and received on the 74 special counsel phones that were reviewed, answers on what actions the JMD has taken to recover the 59 Mueller team phones that haven’t been located, and answers on whether or not the DOJ “has reviewed the SCO cell phones to determine whether they were used to leak sensitive or classified information.” The senators asked for these responses before the end of July.
The special counsel's 2019 report concluded Russia interfered “in a sweeping and systematic fashion” during the 2016 presidential election, but Mueller “did not establish” any criminal conspiracy between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign.
Last September, Grassley demanded answers after at least two dozen phones belonging to members of Mueller’s team were “wiped” of their data before Horowitz’s investigators could review them.
The revelation was contained within 87 pages of partially redacted Justice Department records released through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group.
Many of the names were concealed, but the records show that Andrew Weissmann, a key prosecutor on the Mueller team who went on to become an MSNBC legal analyst, said he accidentally wiped the data from his government-issued phones two separate times. Notes from March 3, 2018, noted that he “entered password too many times and wiped his phone,” and notes on Sept. 27, 2018, indicated that he “accidentally wiped cell phone — data lost.” Weissmann denied mishandling his government-issued phones during an MSNBC appearance in September, saying, “I know I didn’t, and I’m confident that my colleagues didn’t either.”
Many of the names are redacted in the DOJ records but mentioned instances in which, for example, data was unable to be recovered because the phone was in airplane mode and no passcode was provided, or phones were accidentally wiped because the incorrect passcode was entered.
The DOJ notes on Page show her phone was misplaced by the FBI and had been “restored to factory settings” when the DOJ watchdog received it. The notes for Strzok state “no substantive texts, notes, or reminders” were found on his phone.
Horowitz’s 2018 report said there were technical problems that made it difficult to recover and review the thousands of text messages exchanged between Strzok and Page but noted there was “no evidence” they “attempted to circumvent the FBI's text message collection capabilities.”
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