Attacks, new investigations test FBI
Pressures mounting on director likely to increase
WASHINGTON – Three days after federal agents searched former President Donald Trump’s Florida home for classified documents, FBI Director Christopher Wray emailed his workforce urging them to tune out criticism from those who “don’t know what we know and don’t see what we see.”
The work was done by the book, the director wrote in his Aug. 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 subsequent pummeling the bureau had been receiving from Trump and his supporters. It also was a recognition that the FBI had been navigating a moment so fraught that the normally taciturn Wray felt compelled to address employees about the ramifications of the investigation.
The pressures on Wray and the FBI have grown since then and are only likely to intensify. In its long history, the FBI has rarely been at the center of so many politically sensitive investigations. Agents are simultaneously examining the retention of classified documents by Trump and President Joe Biden. And they’re scrutinizing efforts by Trump and his allies to overturn the 2020 election ahead of the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol.
The probes, overseen by Justice Department special counsels, are unfolding in a hyper-partisan environment as the 2024 presidential election nears and as Congress launches its own investigations of the FBI. All the while, the bureau has been subjected to 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 the FBI was enduring tough times. But he downplayed the impact the “noise” had on day-to-day work, insisting the opinions he most valued were those of “the people we do the work for and those we do the work with.”
Adding to the tension: Republicans are using their newly minted House majority to investigate the investigators, accusing the FBI of abuses ranging from unfairly targeting Trump to suppressing free speech. They’ve highlighted disputed, uncorroborated whistleblower complaints against supervisors that the FBI for privacy reasons says it’s constrained from fully responding to.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a Wray critic and chair of the House Judiciary Committee, told The AP last week he supported rank-and-file agents but was concerned about the leadership.
For Wray, the turbulence is more a continuation of a recent trend than something new.
He was appointed by Trump in 2017 after the chaotic firing of his predecessor, James Comey, and as the FBI investigated ties between Russia and Trump’s 2016 campaign. Furious over that probe, Trump lashed out at Wray for the remainder of his term and openly flirted with firing him.
The director fastidiously ignored the verbal assaults, adhering to a “keep calm and tackle hard” mantra that he has repeatedly conveyed to agents but that can seem incongruous with a climate that is decidedly not calm. His approach did not change as the bureau initiated investigations involving the current and former presidents.
“We’re not well-served by wading into the fray, taking the bait and responding to every breathless allegation,” Wray told The AP. “So we will continue to push back and correct the record when we appropriately can. But as long as I’m director we’re going to follow the FBI’s long history and tradition of letting our work do the talking.”
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.
The inherent tripwires of politically explosive investigations were manifest last summer, when some in the FBI resisted the idea of serving a search warrant at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate believing a more cautious approach was better and that the Trump team was entitled to more time to cooperate, according to a person with knowledge of the talks. The Washington Post earlier reported the disagreements.
In the days after the search, as U.S. officials warned of an alarming spike in threats against the FBI, a 42-year-old Trump supporter attacked the FBI’s Cincinnati field office. No FBI employees were harmed, but police killed the gunman.
For his part, Wray said he tries to communicate as much as he can about the FBI’s work, including about the Chinese espionage threat or other priorities, but no matter how much he does so, “the focus is on the manufactured controversies of the day or the one or two cases that get all the attention.”
He believes a key part of his job is to step up outreach to his 38,000-member workforce. Besides the message after the Mar-a-Largo search, he held an employee town hall in December, taking questions about public perception of the FBI, agent safety and allegations of politicization.
He also frequently visits the bureau’s 56 field offices to speak to agents and local law enforcement.
“At the end of the day,” he said of the workforce, “they’re not doing it to attract popularity contests on social media or to win the adoration of pundits.”