Top Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday sent a letter to the head of the Justice Department's press shop, quizzing her on how members of the media obtained text messages sent by a former member of the special counsel team on the eve of an appearance by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein before the committee.
The text messages, from a once top FBI counterintelligence official, Peter Strzok, included insults flung toward then-candidate Donald Trump and were used as bullet points in arguments by Republicans at Wednesday's hearing that the bureau and the special counsel probe were tainted. Strzok led the FBI's Hillary Clinton email investigation and served on Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team investigating interference by Russia in the 2016 election.
He was removed from the team over the summer after the messages were discovered as a part of an ongoing investigation by the DOJ's inspector general into the FBI's actions leading up to the election.
In the letter, committee ranking member Rep. Jerry Nadler, along with vice ranking member Rep. Jamie Raskin and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, ask the DOJ's director of the office of public affairs, Sarah Flores, for "further clarification about this unusual move." The letter goes on to ask Flores to identify "who at the Department of Justice approved your decision to invite the press to view these text messages" and the names of the individuals who attended any "media briefing."
In a statement to CNN Thursday, Flores rejected the accusation that the DOJ did anything improper, explaining that members of Congress received the texts "before any member of the media was given access to view the same copy of the texts."
"When the initial inquiries came from committees and members of Congress, the deputy attorney general consulted with the inspector general, and the inspector general determined that he had no objection to the Department's providing the material to the Congressional committees that had requested it," Flores said. "After that consultation, senior career ethics advisers determined that there were no legal or ethical concerns, including under the Privacy Act, that prohibited the release of the information to the public either by members of Congress or by the Department."
Nadler and Jeffries also wrote Thursday to DOJ inspector general Michael Horowitz asking if the department consulted with his office before the release of the messages.
The DOJ has in the past allowed reporters access to material that's part of an ongoing inspector general investigation. In 2011 and 2012, as the DOJ's inspector general was investigating the failed "Fast and Furious" gun-running operation, the department allowed reporters to review emails sent between agency employees after they were first released to Congress.
Democrats at the hearing Wednesday grilled Rosenstein on the release of the messages.
Responding, Rosenstein said that "one of my concerns about this issue is -- what is the status of these messages and is it appropriate to release them?
"The determination was made that it is so we gave notice to their attorneys, we notified the committee and our goal, congressman, is to make sure that it's clear to you and the American people we are not concealing anything that's embarrassing to the FBI."