The Justice Department invited a group of reporters to its offices on Tuesday night to view private text messages.
The messages were sent during the election by former investigators on special counsel Robert Mueller's team, and some expressed a negative sentiment toward President Donald Trump.
The department invitation was "highly unusual," according to multiple sources, since the texts are currently the subject of an ongoing investigation by the DOJ's Inspector General.
WASHINGTON — The Justice Department invited a group of reporters to its offices on Tuesday night to view private text messages that were sent during the election by Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, former investigators on special counsel Robert Mueller's team, Business Insider has learned.
President Donald Trump's allies have seized on the texts, which were critical of Trump, as evidence that special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation has been tainted. The texts were obtained as part of an investigation by the DOJ's inspector general into how the FBI handled the probe into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's private email server last year.
Strzok, a veteran counterintelligence agent who was among those overseeing the Clinton investigation, was abruptly removed from Mueller's Russia probe in late July and relegated to the human resources department. Page left Mueller's team over the summer for unrelated reasons.
It is "highly unusual" for the DOJ to release correspondences that are the subject of an ongoing investigation to Congress, let alone to the press, a source on one of the congressional committees investigating Russian election interference told Business Insider on Wednesday. The source emphasized that none of the leaks came from Capitol Hill, which obtained the texts from the DOJ separately on Tuesday.
"It’s appalling behavior by the Department," said former DOJ spokesman Matthew Miller. "This is an ongoing investigation in which these employees have due process rights, and the political leadership at DOJ has thrown them to the wolves so Rosenstein can get credit from House Republicans at his hearing today."
One source close to the process who requested anonymity to discuss internal DOJ deliberations said the texts were given to reporters in case they did not leak in time for Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's public hearing on Wednesday morning.
"It is at least debatable whether it was appropriate to turn them over to the Hill in the middle of an ongoing investigation," Miller said. "Under no circumstances was it appropriate to leak them to the press."
It is not clear who invited the reporters to view the texts. Former FBI counterintelligence agent Asha Rangappa said that if the invitation came from Attorney General Jeff Sessions' office, it could be "a violation of his recusal" from investigations in which he has a conflict of interest.
A DOJ official provided a statement on Wednesday.
"We often provide information we give to Congressional committees to avoid any confusion," the official said.
Asked whether that also applies during ongoing OIG investigations, the official replied: "Statement stands."
Rangappa said she has "never heard of DOJ interfacing directly and privately with reporters, outside of an official press conference. Especially when there is still an ongoing internal investigation. Both FBI and DOJ have press offices that should be fielding questions from reporters on behalf of the agency."
The correspondences were provided to Congress by Stephen Boyd, a former communications director for Attorney General Jeff Sessions who now serves as the Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legislative Affairs.