Another FBI director finds himself in a political vise
It wasn’t supposed to be this way for Chris Wray.
The Trump-appointed FBI director was confirmed to his post on a promise to steer clear of the go-it-alone gambits that earned his predecessor, James Comey, the wrath of Democrats and Republicans alike. Where Comey took politically explosive steps without consulting superiors and offered personal opinions about Hillary Clinton that proved damaging to her campaign, Wray would hug his bosses close and keep silent about anyone not facing criminal charges.
“It’s never been my practice to speak publicly as a prosecutor or as a department official about uncharged individuals,” Wray said during his July 2017 confirmation hearing. “I think those policies are important. I think they’re in place for a reason and I would expect to comply with them.”
Yet just days from the 2020 election, Wray finds himself in an eerily familiar position: under withering pressure from Donald Trump and his allies to publicly disclose information that could damage Trump’s political rival — this time, Joe Biden.
Trump’s inner circle was already furious at Wray for echoing the intelligence community's finding that Russia is acting to damage Biden’s candidacy, as well as his description of antifa as “an ideology” rather than an organized entity. Now, they’re ratcheting up calls for Trump to fire his handpicked director. Trump has knocked Wray repeatedly in recent days for these comments, as well as for suggesting voter fraud is not a “widespread” issue. The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., has suggested his dad might “break up” the upper ranks of the FBI in a second term.
To Democrats, who largely say Wray has run the FBI with integrity, the last-ditch pressure campaign is a moment for the director to make a choice. “Do you want to be Elliot Richardson and Archibald Cox and be forever celebrated?” wondered Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), referring to the Watergate-era figures who defied Richard Nixon. “Or do you want to be another one of Donald Trump’s thugs?”
Other congressional and law enforcement sources noted that Trump might lack the leverage to bend Wray — who, like past FBI directors, was appointed to serve a 10-year term, a setup designed to insulate the bureau from politics — to his will. A public offensive against Biden by the FBI would doom Wray’s chances of remaining atop the bureau in a potential Biden administration. Wray, they say, would have no incentive to burn the rulebook in order to score a point for Trump, particularly when he enjoys relatively bipartisan support in the Capitol.
The latest push from Trump and his allies is for Wray to reveal whether the FBI is in possession of a laptop or hard drive that once belonged to Biden’s son Hunter. The hard drive was allegedly dropped off at a Wilmington, Del. repair shop in April 2019 — days before Joe Biden entered the presidential race — abandoned and eventually turned over by one of the shop’s repair workers to Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani. The repairman has said he shared the drive with the FBI as early as December 2019.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) confirmed that his committee received the materials last month and asked Wray to brief the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee on any efforts to determine the validity of the emails. Johnson has asked for answers by Tuesday.
It’s unclear if the FBI intends to respond. A spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
So far, despite the renewed pressure, the FBI has not disclosed the existence of any investigation related to Hunter Biden, and the bureau’s typical practice is to neither confirm nor deny whether any particular probe exists, with a few notable exceptions. That prohibition is typically even more stringent toward the end of campaign season, when Justice Department policies dictate that no politically explosive steps should be taken within two months of an election.
Wray has largely kept his head down amid the deluge, keeping his public comments terse and showing no indication that the public campaign to get him to bend is having an effect. He last delivered extensive public remarks at a September hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and his most recent public foray was in a lengthy PSA from intelligence community leaders warning against foreign interference in the 2020 election.
It’s one reason that Democrats and their allies who have soured on many of the leaders of Trump’s intelligence community have given Wray the benefit of the doubt.
“I think he’s a professional, stand-up guy,” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine). “I think he has enough respect for the institution of the FBI to not have it be used as a political weapon.”
Emails and texts purportedly contained on the hard drive have made their way into news accounts in Trump-friendly publications, leading some Biden allies and Capitol Hill Democrats to warn that the disclosures bore the same hallmarks as the Russian hack-and-leak operation that dogged Clinton in October 2016. Recent reports suggest the FBI has begun to investigate such a possibility.
But on Monday, Trump’s top intelligence aide John Ratcliffe, deployed to Fox News to disavow the suggestion that the Biden emails were the fruits of a Russian disinformation campaign. And in making the assertion, he appeared to suggest that the bureau was in fact exploring the matter.
“Without commenting on any investigation that they may or may not have, their investigation is not centered around Russian disinformation and the IC is not playing any role with respect to that,’ Ratcliffe said in the Fox interview.
"Let me be clear. The intelligence community doesn't believe that because there is no intelligence that supports that,” said Ratcliffe, who has faced complaints about politicizing intelligence with selective disclosures of classified information related to the FBI’s 2016 Trump-Russia investigation.
Ratcliffe made no mention of the Trump administration’s designation in September of a key Giuliani interlocutor, Ukrainian lawmaker Andrii Derkach, as “an active Russian agent for over a decade.” The Treasury Department also slapped Derkach with sanctions, accusing him of “complicit in foreign interference in an attempt to undermine the upcoming 2020 U.S. presidential election.” Derkach has been promoting a variety of unproven allegations against the Bidens for months, and met with Giuliani in December as the former New York mayor attempted to gather dirt on Biden to counter the House’s push to impeach Trump.
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows similarly leaned on Wray to reveal more information. “Bill Barr and the FBI need to actually make sure the American people know the truth,” he said on Fox News on Monday morning.
Trump himself has in recent days begun leaning on the FBI and Justice Department to begin investigating and prosecuting his political enemies, including the Bidens. He has publicly aired gripes about not only Wray but Attorney General William Barr — viewed as one of Trump’s staunchest allies — for declining to bring charges. On Monday, Trump characterized Barr’s reticence to being “a very nice man and very fair man.”
“In many ways, it doesn’t make some of us happy,” Trump said, according to a pool report.
FBI and intelligence community veterans say Wray is unlikely to yield to pressure from Trump, even in the closing days of the presidential election.
“Chris does not need my advice,” said Chuck Rosenberg, a former FBI chief of staff, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. “He is smart and thoughtful and principled and has the best interests of the FBI and the nation in mind.”
CORRECTION: This story incorrectly identified one of Chuck Rosenberg’s previous roles at the Department of Justice. In addition to being a former FBI chief of staff, he is a former head of the DEA and former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.