WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Tuesday criticized the FBI as “badly broken,” and suggested Director Christopher Wray may not have the right attitude to fix it, alarming current and former law enforcement officials who want to safeguard the bureau’s independence.
Trump took aim at Wray’s reaction to a Justice Department inspector general’s report that found serious failures in the FBI’s investigation of the Trump campaign in 2016, but no politically motivated conspiracy to harm the president.
“I don’t know what report current Director of the FBI Christopher Wray was reading, but it sure wasn’t the one given to me,” Trump tweeted. “With that kind of attitude, he will never be able to fix the FBI, which is badly broken despite having some of the greatest men & women working there!”
An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment.
The early-morning tongue-lashing, which seemed to echo some of the criticism lodged against then-FBI Director James Comey to justify his firing in 2017, raised concerns among current and former federal law enforcement officials about Wray’s hold on his job.
Gregory Brower, a former Bush administration U.S. attorney and former senior FBI official, called the president’s message “very unfortunate, and off base in terms of the facts.”
Wray “is a dedicated public servant and highly ethical FBI director who understands the importance of the FBI’s independence, and understands the FBI can never appear to be political,” Brower said.
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham told Fox News: “I think that one thing about this president, if he’s not happy with you, you will be the first to know,” adding, “He’s got great respect for the FBI and all intelligence agencies and for the thousands and thousands of law enforcement officers who work there.”
The inspector general’s 434-page report rebutted conservatives’ accusations that top FBI officials were driven by political bias to illegally spy on Trump advisers as part of the investigation of election interference by Russia, but it also found broad and “serious performance failures” requiring major changes.
In a statement Monday, Wray, a Trump appointee, said he had ordered more than 40 corrective steps to address the report’s recommendations,” adding that he would not hesitate to take “appropriate disciplinary action if warranted.”
But he also noted that the report says the investigations of Trump associates “were opened in 2016 for an authorized purpose and with adequate factual predication.”
The report, which was based on more than 1 million documents and more than 170 interviews, is the most exhaustive assessment of the investigation of Russian election interference that roiled Trump’s presidency, an inquiry that was ultimately taken over by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Wray was sworn in as FBI director in August 2017, replacing Andrew McCabe, who had been leading the bureau in an acting capacity after Trump fired Comey.
Unlike Comey, Wray has sought to keep a low profile, seeking to calm the political fires surrounding the FBI since the 2016 election. By generally keeping out of the public eye, he has usually avoided the president’s ire.
But not always.
In May, when Wray told lawmakers that he would not use the term “spying” to describe the FBI’s surveillance activities toward the Trump campaign in 2016 – contradicting both the president and Attorney General William Barr – Trump called that “a ridiculous answer.”
Since becoming FBI director, Wray occasionally visits the Oval Office to see Trump – he attends some intelligence briefings – but has not sought regular access, current and former officials say.
The president did not know Wray before picking him. He was suggested by former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a Republican who once worked with Wray at the Justice Department.
Wray “obviously knows Trump can fire him at any time he wants, but he doesn’t care to please Trump,” said a Wray ally who regularly speaks to him. Wray was “trying to send a message to the building with his comments yesterday. He knew exactly what he was doing.”
While Trump and some White House officials believe Wray has not done enough to make changes at the bureau, four people close to the president said they were skeptical he would fire the FBI director because he does not have the animus toward him that he had for other former officials – and because the FBI is currently not “coming after him,” in the words of one adviser.
A federal law enforcement official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly, said Wray’s comments were meant to convey the report’s findings “and seriously address some of the conduct, which he found unacceptable and unrepresentative of the FBI.”
“He stressed to bureau employees that there are lessons to be learned and their focus should be on their work,” the official continued. “Director Wray is more about the substance than the drama.”
FBI officials point to recent surveys showing improving morale at the bureau. Applications have more than doubled, and the attrition rate for agents is less than 1%.
Wray told ABC News on Monday that the inspector general “did not find political bias or improper motivations impacting the opening of the investigation or the decision to use certain investigative tools during the investigations.”
He rejected characterizing the bureau’s work as that of the “deep state” – a term Trump has used.
“I think that’s the kind of label that’s a disservice to the men and women who work at the FBI who I think tackle their jobs with professionalism, with rigor, with objectivity, with courage,” he said. “So that’s not a term I would ever use to describe our workforce, and I think it’s an affront to them.”
Wray also said the FBI had “no information that indicates that Ukraine interfered with the 2016 presidential election” – contradicting both Trump and his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.
Giuliani fired his own salvo at the FBI director Tuesday.
“Wray is wrong, he hasn’t investigated anything, he doesn’t know,” Giuliani said. “The view of the FBI in Ukraine is [that] they block any information coming to the U.S. that would demonstrate the high level of corruption and collusion.”
Officials have said that Barr and Wray have a good working relationship, but that they expect the inspector general’s report will increase tensions at least in the short term between the FBI and the Justice Department, as well as with the White House.
Current and former FBI personnel expressed frustration that the inspector general’s report cleared the FBI of the gravest accusations – that political bias and illegal spying fueled the investigation of the Trump campaign – only to see the nation’s top law enforcement official, the attorney general, argue that the findings weren’t critical enough.
Barr told The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday that the FBI investigation of the Trump campaign was “a travesty” that misled the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. In an interview with NBC News, he said he knew what the president was “getting at” with his tweet – that the bureau can’t “ignore the abuses of the past” or try to justify or minimize them. Asked if whether had confidence in Wray, Barr responded simply, “yes.”
Although Wray is appointed to a 10-year term, ostensibly to remove him from politics, Trump could fire him. Doing so, however, would come with significant political risk.
Trump’s May 2017 firing of Comey, his first FBI director, produced far-reaching consequences that have dogged his presidency ever since.
Before Comey’s firing, Trump was not a direct subject in the FBI investigation of whether his campaign had coordinated with Russia to influence the 2016 election. But after Comey’s removal, the FBI began investigating Trump personally for possible obstruction of justice.
Video: President Trump on Dec. 9 falsely said the Justice Department inspector general’s report on the Russia investigation showed the FBI attempted to ‘overthrow the government.'(The Washington Post)