Senior FBI officials involved in the investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server considered naming former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald as a special prosecutor for that probe, according to text messages released Thursday.
The proposal for a special counsel appears to have arisen in March 2016, relatively early in the FBI's inquiry into Clinton's email use, based on a limited set of texts exchanged by senior FBI agent Peter Strzok and FBI attorney Lisa Page that were made public by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley.
While it appears from the messages that the idea of a special prosecutor was discussed at high-level FBI meetings, it is unclear whether the thought of naming Fitzgerald to that job was as widely discussed.
"Thought of the perfect person [FBI Director James Comey] can bounce this off of?" Strzok wrote in a March 18, 2016 text to Page. "Pat....You got to give me credit if we go with him....And delay briefing him on until I can get back and do it, Late next week or later."
"We talked about him last night, not for this, but how great he is," Page replied.
"I could work with him again....And damn we'd get sh*t DONE," Strzok wrote.
Strzok noted that while Fitzgerald was a U.S. attorney in Chicago, Comey named him as special counsel to investigate the leak of the identity of CIA official Valerie Plame. Fitzgerald wound up charging and convicting Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis Libby, of false statements and obstruction of justice in the probe. President George W. Bush used his clemency powers to waive Libby's prison sentence, but declined to grant him an outright pardon.
No special prosecutor was ever appointed in the Clinton email investigation, but Republicans began demanding such an appointment as early as February 2016. Calls for an independent prosecutor continued through election season, with then-candidate Donald Trump repeatedly demanding such an appointment.
Fitzgerald did not immediately reply to a request for comment for this story.
No one at the FBI had the power to appoint a special counsel. That decision would have had to be made by Attorney General Loretta Lynch or, if she recused herself, one of her deputies.
In a letter sent Thursday, Grassley asked current FBI Director Christopher Wray to advise whether the bureau ever asked Justice Department officials to appoint a special counsel. "If not, why not?" the senator wrote, also demanding all written communications on the issue.
Advocacy by Strzok and Page for a special counsel to investigate Clintons' emails could complicate Republicans' arguments that the pair were acting based on political bias in favor of Clinton and against Trump.
However, the newly-disclosed texts also contain indications that political considerations could have affected aspects of the Clinton email probe. In February 2016, as Page discussed how many agents and lawyers should attend a particular meeting or interview, she seems to suggest keeping the numbers to a minimum because of the prospect that Clinton will win the election.
"One more thing: she might be our next president," Page wrote. "The last thing you need us going in there loaded for bear. You think she's going to remember or care that it was more doj than fbi?"
The messages also provide fodder for Republicans and internal Justice Department investigators seeking evidence of potential leaks during the Clinton email investigation or the ongoing probe of connections between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Messages from October 28, 2016 show that Page was engaged in a protracted phone conversation with reporter Devlin Barrett, then with the Wall Street Journal. The discussion took place a few days after Barrett published a story reporting that the wife of FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe received nearly half a million dollars in campaign donations from a committee linked to then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D-Va.) and two days before Barrett reported that there was an "internal feud" at the FBI over efforts to investigate the Clinton Foundation.
Page was on the phone with Barrett just as news broke that the FBI had found State Department emails on a laptop it seized while investigating former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) for sexting with minors.
"Still on with devlin," Page wrote. "Mike's phone is ON FIRE," she added, apparently referring to FBI public affairs chief Michael Kortan.
"You may want to tell Devlin he should turn on CNN, there's news going on," Strzok replied.
"He knows. He just got handed a note," Page said.
"Ha. He asking about it now?" Strzok asked.
"Yeah. It was pretty funny," Page wrote.
The text messages don't indicate what information, if any, Page provided to Barrett or whether her discussions with the reporter were authorized by FBI management.
Barrett, who now works for the Washington Post, declined to comment.
Strzok and Page, who were reportedly having an affair during the time covered by the texts, were each assigned to the Russia probe for a time. Page left the probe last year a short time before the text messages were discovered. Discovery of the messages led Special Counsel Robert Mueller to kick Strzok off that investigation and send him back to the FBI, where he was reassigned to the human resources division.
The texts Grassley released Thursday were part of a set of 384 pages of messages the Justice Department turned over to Congress last week. Justice officials initially told Congress that about five months of messages between Strzok and Page were missing as a result of a widespread technical glitch involving FBI communications. The missing texts prompted widespread suspicion among Republicans and led Trump to tweet his disbelief of the official explanation.
However, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz told lawmakers Thursday that his office has managed to retrieve the Strzok-Page messages that were once considered lost to history.