On August 8, FBI agents traveled to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate and executed a search warrant. The former president’s allies have accused the FBI of turning the United States into a banana republic. Three days later, a gunman named Ricky Shiffer – who was already on the FBI’s radar for his ties to extremism, according to reports — attempted to break into the office’s field office in Cincinnati. He ran away. A confrontation ensued and the police killed him.
That day, Wray sent an email to office workers saying their safety was his “primary concern right now.” It was not only physical security he was emphasizing, but also reputational security.
“As always, the way we maintain the trust of the American people is not by joining in public comment,” read the email, which POLITICO and other outlets have reviewed. “We do this through our work. By showing, when all the facts come out, we stick to the process. We don’t skimp. We don’t play favourites. We ask the tough questions – including ourselves, ensuring among other things that the investigative steps we take are measured and scrupulously consistent with our national security obligations and our role in upholding the Constitution. Our focus must remain, as always, on our mission and on doing the right thing, the right way, no matter how noisy. »
The day after Wray sent his email, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security sent an intelligence bulletin warning that the execution of an unspecified search warrant in Palm Beach, Florida – a obvious reference to the mandate of Mar-a-Lago – had been followed by increasing threats against law enforcement. A telling passage from the document, which POLITICO and other outlets obtained and which was marked as “For Official Use Only”, stated that “future law enforcement or legal action against individuals associated with the Palm Beach research” could “aggravate the threat environment”.
In other words, according to the FBI and DHS, things could get worse. For Wray, it’s yet another test, which could define the second half of his tenure, if he completes 10 years there.
“The FBI, and this isn’t the first time, is in the middle of a storm,” said Chuck Rosenberg, a former senior law enforcement official who was chief of staff to the FBI director of the era, Robert Mueller. “Chris Wray is a man of great integrity and his ability to weather this storm is extremely important and will be under intense scrutiny. There is no way forward except for the FBI to focus on their job. vital and follow the facts.
“A draft horse”
Wray started in the office under the long shadow of Comey. His predecessor was known for making the news at congressional hearings and getting philosophical when speaking in public. Wray was and remains different. A congressional aide told POLITICO that Wray got the job precisely because he was boring and had done a good job of staying that way.
In a recent “60 Minutes” interview, Wray described one of his favorite analogies, one he also repeats in private conversations: the importance of being “more of a workhorse than a show horse. “.
“[M]y people have heard me say this over and over again, as I go around the office across the country and around the world, making sure we stay focused on the job because we speak through our work” , did he declare.
In private meetings with other senior Justice Department officials, Wray and his FBI colleagues are renowned for their brevity. Those who have worked closely with him say he likes to come to these meetings with a clear agenda and then “listen and analyze” the debate and conversation that ensues. He doesn’t always chat and doesn’t always spit.
But there have been exceptions. Wray took a particularly hands-on approach in high-level Justice Department conversations in 2020 about reauthorizing provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a law that governs US electronic surveillance. Civil liberties advocates have long criticized how the law drives covert surveillance of American people. And these criticisms increased after the release of a report of the Justice Department’s inspector general who found a host of problems in how the FBI used the law to surveil a former Trump campaign adviser — activities that happened before Wray was director.
This report was released in December 2019. In March 2020, the Inspector General has established more widespread problems in the FISA process. That year, Congress weighed the reauthorization of several FISA provisions. Seth DuCharme, a partner at Bracewell and a former senior assistant deputy attorney general, said Wray, in speaking with senior Justice Department officials, focused on advocating for authorities with lawmakers and the public.
“He said, ‘We need to send a consistent message to people about the importance of FISA and some of the consequences we might face if we lost that authority,'” DuCharme recalled. seen as an essential mission.”
This level of participation in global strategic discussions was not typical for Wray. As DuCharme said, “That was the exception rather than the rule.”
The efforts were unsuccessful. Congress declined to reauthorize specific FISA authorities that expired in 2020. They have since lapsed.
“A privileged target”
The aftermath of the Mar-a-Lago search warrant presented a very sensitive new set of challenges for Wray. But it also brought him to a familiar place with now-familiar critics: House Republicans.
A House Republican aide told POLITICO the conference sees the FBI director as a big deal. The sentiment stems from a broad view among Trump loyalists that Democratic supporters have armed law enforcement to target the right, while giving their allies a free pass. Wray runs the FBI, the aide added, which makes him — along with Attorney General Merrick Garland — a key part of their grievances. If the House flips, Wray and the FBI will face further scrutiny and excoriations.
“He will be a prime target,” a House Republican aide told POLITICO.
This person said that the Mar-a-Lago fallout is the biggest problem right now. But there are others. House Republicans are also unhappy that the FBI is not going further in its investigation of the president’s son, Hunter Biden. Another dormant issue: the FBI’s seizure of Rep. Scott Perry’s phone. Perry, a Pennsylvania Republican linked to Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results, leads the influential and highly conservative House Freedom Caucus.
“You’re going to see Republicans testing this idea that the FBI doesn’t have to talk about ongoing investigations,” added the aide, who was not authorized to discuss the conference’s plans on the case.
This test would create political fireworks. During his 2017 confirmation hearing, Wray specifically said he would follow DOJ policies “which govern public comments about unindicted persons.”
“I think these policies are there for a reason,” he added at the time.
If Wray refuses to divulge details in future hearings, the ball will be firmly in the House Republican leadership’s court as to how to respond. However, the tension may be different in the Senate.
A Republican Senate aide said some members of the conference specifically discussed the importance of not attacking Wray due to fears of hurting the morale of FBI agents. The view is that supporting law enforcement means supporting everything law enforcement – including the FBI. And at the very least, that means not lambasting Wray and the bureau for political points. Trump’s Vice President Mike Pence also called the republicans last week to lay off the office.
Among many Senate Republicans, there is also an ongoing sense that Wray’s approach to the job still compares well to how others might handle it. Another Senate Republican aide argued that House Republicans’ long-term goals had a glaring hole: If they managed to tarnish Wray so badly that he resigned or was fired, a Biden-appointed replacement wouldn’t really be a reprieve.
“We can imagine someone much worse being put in this position,” the Senate aide said.
Eric Geller contributed to this report.