Three days after federal agents searched the Florida home of former US President Donald Trump for classified documents, FBI Director Christopher Wray emailed his task force and urged them to address criticism of those who ” do not know what we know and what we do not see”.
The book is done, the director wrote in his August 11 email. “We don’t cut corners. We don’t play favorites.
The internal message was an acknowledgment of the unprecedented nature of the search and the aftermath the bureau was getting from Trump and his supporters. It was also a recognition that the FBI was faking a moment so sinister that the normally taciturn Ray felt compelled to address the staff about the ramifications of the investigation.
The pressure on Wray and the FBI has increased since then and is likely to intensify further. In its long history, the FBI has rarely been at the center of such politically sensitive investigations. The agents are simultaneously probing the retention of classified documents by Trump and President Joe Biden. And they are scrutinizing efforts by Trump and his allies to overturn the 2020 election before the January 6, 2021, storming of the US Capitol.
The investigation, overseen by special advisers to the Justice Department, is unfolding in a hyper-partisan environment as the 2024 presidential election nears and Congress begins its own investigation of the FBI. Throughout, the bureau has come under regular attacks from Trump, his supporters and influential right-wing pundits, with the former president saying FBI “misfits” are less credible than Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In an interview with The Associated Press this week, Wray acknowledged that the FBI is going through tough times. But he downplayed the impact the “noise” had on his day-to-day work, insisting the ideas he valued most were “the people we work for and the people we work with”. .
“I’m not just discussing one or two investigations on social media or cable news, but the impact we’re seeing across the country to protect the American people,” he said.
Tensions rise: Republicans are using their newly-built House majority to probe investigators, accusing the FBI of everything from unfairly targeting Trump to suppressing free speech. He has highlighted conflicting, unconfirmed informant complaints against the supervisors to which the FBI has said it is constrained from answering fully for confidentiality reasons.
Republican Congressman Jim Jordan of Ohio, a Ray critic and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told the AP last week that he supported rank-and-file agents but was concerned about leadership.
For Ray, the turbulence is more a continuation of a recent trend than something new.
He was appointed by Trump in 2017 following the chaotic firing of his predecessor, James Comey, and the FBI’s investigation into ties between Russia and Trump’s 2016 campaign. Enraged by that investigation, Trump lashed out at Wray for the remainder of his term and openly fired him.
The director swiftly ignored the verbal assaults, adhering to the “keep calm and deal tough” mantra that he has repeatedly told the agents, but this may seem inconsistent with an environment that is decidedly not calm. His approach did not change as the bureau launched investigations involving current and former presidents.
“We are not being served well by getting out in the field, taking the bait, and answering every breathless allegation,” Ray told the AP. “So we will continue to push back and correct the record when we reasonably can. But as long as I’m director, we’re going to follow the FBI’s long history and tradition of letting our work speak for itself.”
The AP spoke to nearly two dozen current and former FBI officers for this story. Most spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss FBI matters publicly. Many of those interviewed said they were distressed to see the FBI becoming embroiled in politics, facing attacks not only on the bureau itself, but also on the policies and actions of the Department of Justice Like the memo directing him to address threatening rhetoric at meetings, that he believes has injected the bureau into partisan ground and invited criticism.
Some who are personally supportive of Wray and respect his approach to the job argue that he and the FBI could push back more strongly against false narratives and do a better job of explaining their work to the public. Are. It’s certainly a complicated calculation for the FBI, as Comey was widely criticized for his public statements about the Hillary Clinton email investigation, an experience that exists as a cautionary tale for the more circumspect Ray. Is.
Greg Brown, who worked with Comey and Wray when he was the FBI’s top liaison to Congress, said he believes Wray tries to do what is right in relation to pressure and He is unlikely to adapt his style to satisfy critics. Although not inclined to second-guess Ray, he stated that it could be argued that Ray’s “traditional” style should be modified for unorthodox times and that aggressive pushback was needed to prevent false narratives from taking hold. was needed.
“It sometimes appears that the narrative that the Bureau’s opponents are creating is often a false narrative, it takes on a life of its own and becomes reality for all intents and purposes. causes misrepresentation, which is difficult to undo,” Brower said.
Joshua Scully, a former top agent, echoed that assessment, saying, “Truth is being eroded in our society. To counter this, you have to have overcommunication with the field office and the headquarters.
While attacks are not always rooted in facts, perceptions matter because no matter how the Trump and Biden investigations are resolved, the FBI and Justice Department must assure the public that the investigation was conducted thoroughly and professionally.
The partisan environment magnifies self-inflicted wounds that have damaged the FBI’s credibility, making it more difficult to counter conspiracy theories and questionable narratives.
A recent indictment of an ex-FBI counterintelligence officer provided fodder for FBI critics. The FBI came under pressure last week over a leaked field office memo that warned about potential Catholic extremists, a document Attorney General Merrick Garland called “appalling” and said it had been retracted. Chronic errors during the Trump-Russia probe, including the botched wiretap application targeting a Trump aide, continue to shadow the bureau years later.
In a separate interview, FBI Deputy Director Paul Abbate said of the Trump-Russia mistakes, “We take them to heart every day.”
The tripwires underlying the politically explosive investigation were revealed last US summer, when some in the FBI resisted the idea of serving a search warrant at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, believing that a more cautious approach was preferable. And there was the Trump team. deserves more time to cooperate, according to a person with knowledge of the talks. Washington Post First reported disagreement.
In the days following the search, as US officials warned of an alarming increase in threats against the FBI, a 42-year-old Trump supporter attacked the FBI’s Cincinnati field office. No FBI personnel were hurt, but the gunman was shot dead by police.
For his part, Wray said he tries to communicate as little as possible about the FBI’s work, including about the Chinese espionage threat or other priorities, but no matter how much he does, “the focus is on the manufactured controversies of the day or the one or two matters that get everyone’s attention”.
He believes an important part of his job is to increase access to his 38,000-member workforce. In addition to messaging after the March-a-Largo search, he held an employee town hall in December, raising questions about the public’s perception of the FBI, agent security, and allegations of politicization.
He also frequently visits the bureau’s 56 field offices to speak with agents and local law enforcement. Last month, he traveled to Norfolk, Virginia, where he discussed violent crime prevention and national security issues. But national politics intervened there too.
During a press conference with local reporters, Ray was asked whether the bureau’s recent and intense public scrutiny was hindering the investigation. He offered a tinge of pink, saying that although he understood the concern, the FBI was “rising and moving like gangbusters”.
“At the end of the day,” he said of the workforce, “they are not doing it to attract a popularity contest on social media or to win the praise of pundits.”