Agents who worked on special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation joked about wiping their cellphones, according to an FBI agent who worked for the special counsel.
FBI agent William Barnett told government investigators last week that he heard other FBI agents at the special counsel’s office (SCO) “comically talk about wiping cellular telephones,” according to a summary of the interview released as part of the court proceedings in the case involving former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
“Barnett had a cellular telephone issued by the SCO which he did not ‘wipe.’ Barnett did hear other agents ‘comically’ talk about wiping cellular telephones, but was not aware of anyone ‘wiping’ their issued cellular telephones,” the summary (pdf) states.
The FBI and the DOJ didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
SCO records released earlier in September show that at least 22 phones belonging to members of the Mueller team were wiped prior to being reviewed for records. The employees provided dubious excuses for wiping their phones, such as doing so “accidentally” or because they forgot their passwords. Two employees claimed their phones wiped themselves.
In addition to the 22 devices that were wiped, 44 phones contained zero records when reviewed by a records officer assigned to the Mueller team. Five other SCO phones contained only one record each, and four had fewer than 10 records per device, according to the log kept by the records officer over the course of more than 20 months.
The dearth of records on the cellphones is extraordinary considering the enormous scope of the investigation. The SCO interviewed approximately 500 witnesses, issued 2,800 subpoenas, and obtained 500 search warrants.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) has requested that the Department of Justice Office of Inspector General look into the wiping of the devices. Barnett could be viewed as a witness in the probe if he could name the agents who joked about erasing their devices.
The Mueller team used at least 92 phones over the course of its 22-month investigation of alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. The special counsel concluded the probe having found no evidence of collusion.
In his interview last week, Barnett told investigators that the SCO’s prosecution of Flynn was a means to “get Trump.” Barnett described his own frustration with the investigation as well as the aggressive campaign by the SCO attorneys to find evidence of wrongdoing by President Donald Trump or his associates. Barnett eventually asked to be removed from the case because he was sure it would become the target of scrutiny by the inspector general, according to the interview summary.
Of the 92 unique iPhones used by the Mueller team, only 12 were recorded as containing a significant number of records when they were reviewed.
Two well-known members of the Mueller team, FBI attorney Lisa Page and Deputy Assistant Director Peter Strzok, mentioned sending and clearing iMessages from their SCO iPhones on more than one occasion.
“Clear imsg …” Strzok wrote to Page on June 5, 2017, and again on June 8.
The records officer, who isn’t identified in the documents, noted that Strzok’s phone contained “no substantive texts, notes or reminders.” Page’s phone went missing under questionable circumstances after she left the Mueller team. When it was recovered more than a year later, the device was already wiped.
Mueller’s team operated with Trump in the White House and with the looming prospect of having its work eventually scrutinized by Congress, the Justice Department, and the inspector general. Text messages released on Sept. 24 show that FBI analysts working the Russia investigation months before Mueller took over were already concerned about the incoming attorney general looking into their work upon taking office. The messages indicate that analysts at the FBI and CIA took out professional liability insurance after Trump won the election.
The iPhones that had no records belonged to some of the key members of the special counsel team, including Mueller himself, deputy special counsel Aaron Zebley, FBI attorney Kevin Clinesmith, and Andrew Weissmann, a prosecutor.
Clinesmith pleaded guilty in August to one false statement charge in connection to an email he forged while serving as the primary FBI attorney assigned to the SCO. He manipulated the email as part of the process for preparing a secret-court application for a warrant to surveil a former Trump campaign adviser.
Clinesmith, Page, and Strzok were among a group of officials who used government-issued devices to express intense bias against Trump while investigating the president and his associates. Messages from the trio offered the public an extraordinary glimpse into the nature of the investigation and now raise questions about why dozens of other phones from the Mueller team turned up wiped or devoid of records.
Strzok, who maintained an extramarital affair with Page, spoke of stopping Trump from becoming president, mentioned an “insurance policy” in case Trump won the election, and mused about impeachment around the time he joined Mueller’s team. Clinesmith wrote that he was “devastated” after Trump’s election victory and that his “name is all over the legal documents investigating [Trump’s] staff.”