When the White House opened up a new line of attack Friday on President Donald Trump’s hand-picked FBI director, it might have seemed like a precursor to another dismissal.
But in Trump’s White House, attacks on the FBI have become commonplace. And being constantly at odds with its director Christopher Wray, one of the nation’s top law enforcement officials, is viewed not as a political liability – even for the “law and order” candidate – but as an asset.
Trump has made little attempt to veil his disdain for Wray, who many of Trump’s allies have suggested to him is doing little to stamp out what they view as rampant corruption at the FBI. He has complained privately that Wray refuses to rebuke his predecessor James Comey, has chastised those who recommended him for the job and has said he would love to replace him.
Wray’s vulnerability is obvious in the era of a President who wants every top official in his administration not only to publicly defend him but to criticize his opponents. Unlike Attorney General William Barr, who often goes out of his way to color his public remarks to avoid contradicting Trump, Wray’s understated style is to stick to the dry facts in a way that Trump and his allies find grating.
Officials at the Justice Department and the FBI say Wray knows the President is often unhappy with him and that the possibility remains ever-present he could be fired by tweet.
Yet there are no indications Trump is preparing to fire another FBI director in the weeks before the election, even as he openly vents about Wray and his litany of perceived faults.
Instead, Trump’s repeated attacks on Wray appear designed to motivate a subset of his political base eager to hear him rail against a swampy deep state – despite holding responsibility himself for executive branch appointments and enjoying Republican control of the Senate, which confirms administration nominees.
People familiar with the dynamics say there is little expectation Trump would fire Wray – or any other high-profile Cabinet official who has dissatisfied him – before the election, though all leave open the possibility the President could immediately upend those assumptions.
Trump has been warned by some advisers that voters may be turned off by the impression his administration is embroiled in chaos, and has been reminded of the damaging fallout from firing Comey, a decision he still insists was wise.
At the same time, Trump sees political advantage in repeatedly undercutting administration officials, even those he appointed, because it allows him to position himself as a government outsider to voters, despite having nearly completed an entire term in office.
Barr has defended Wray to the President and has from time-to-time publicly voiced support for him as a way to counter what Justice officials say is an active campaign by some in the administration and Congress, working with right-wing media figures, to undermine Wray.
But that hasn’t stopped Trump and his top advisers from disputing Wray’s claims or suggesting he may be harboring ulterior motives.
The latest example came Friday, when Trump’s top aide took a swipe at Wray for testifying on Capitol Hill there isn’t evidence of coordinated national voter fraud, despite Trump’s claims otherwise.
Wray’s comments on vote fraud were standard for the FBI. He read from prepared talking points that hewed closely to those he used in a hearing earlier this month. He described the uncharted territory the nation finds itself in because of greater reliance on ballots that won’t be cast on Election Day in this year’s presidential contest, compared to past elections. But he also said plainly that the FBI has not seen evidence of widespread fraud, though it is watching closely for the possibility.
That comment, which he made previously, caught the ear of White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, whose impatience with Wray dates back to his days as a Republican congressman when conservative lawmakers regularly railed at the Justice Department and the FBI over the Russia investigation.
“Perhaps he needs to get involved on the ground and he would change his testimony on Capitol Hill,” Meadows said on CBS News.
Only a week earlier, Trump was griping about entirely different testimony Wray offered on Capitol Hill suggesting Russia was still working to interfere in the presidential election by denigrating Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee.
Asked whether he planned to fire Wray over the comment – which contradicted some of what Trump had said previously, which is that China is the main culprit of election interference – Trump sounded open to it.
“We’re looking at a lot of different things,” Trump said. “I did not like his answers yesterday and I’m not sure he liked them either. I’m sure that he probably would agree with me.”
Trump also took issue with Wray’s testimony last week about Antifa, which the FBI director – pressed on the issue mainly by Republicans – said is not a group or organization but rather a movement or ideology.
“They’re bad and when a man doesn’t say that, that bothers me,” Trump said. “I wonder why he’s not saying that.”
About a month earlier, it was a wholly separate issue with Wray that was angering Trump when he appeared for an interview on Fox Business Channel. Then, Trump was peeved at conservative complaints that Wray was too slow to provide documents to John Durham, who was tapped by Barr to lead the review into the origins of the Russia investigation.
“So Christopher Wray was put there. We have an election coming up. I wish he was more forthcoming, he certainly hasn’t been,” the President said on Fox Business. “Let’s see how Wray turns out. He’s either going to turn out one way or the other.”
Trump’s answer seemed a summation of his growing anger at Wray, who has also drawn the President’s ire for not publicly criticizing Comey and for endorsing the FBI inspector general finding that the Russia investigation was opened properly.
“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 wrote on Twitter after Wray backed the finding late last year. “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!”
History with bureau
Trump has previously blamed Wray’s hiring on former deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. But the President was the one to nominate Wray to lead the bureau in 2017, after firing Comey. Comey had accused Trump of asking him to pledge his loyalty, which Trump has denied.
Aides said that in naming Wray, Trump was hoping for a leader who could, in his view, reform the agency’s culture and speak out against what Trump believes are its abuses of power. He promised in the months after Wray was confirmed that the agency’s reputation would be restored after languishing in “tatters.”
Still, it was clear from the start that after firing Comey, Trump was looking for an FBI director of a different mold who would act more explicitly in his favor. Wray acknowledged during his confirmation hearing that he was entering into a role that would inevitably be bound up in the contentious politics of the Trump era.
“This is not a job for the faint of heart,” Wray said. “I can assure the committee that I am not faint of heart.”
Wray has sought to assure his critics that he is working to fix problems at the FBI that were identified by an inspector general’s investigation, which found that bureau employees made multiple errors or misstatements in seeking court approval to conduct surveillance of Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
He appointed FBI agents and employees to assist in ongoing investigations ordered by Barr. And he has pointed out that the employees involved in those mistakes are no longer at the FBI.
The campaign by Barr to improve Trump’s view of Wray got a boost in recent days when the Justice Department re-released private text messages expressing anti-Trump sentiment from former FBI employees Peter Strzok and Lisa Page during 2016, as the two worked on the FBI investigation of Trump campaign members’ ties to Russia. Trump has pointed to that episode as evidence the bureau was working against him.
In recent weeks, GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham and John Cornyn have publicly praised Wray for his work on confronting the counterintelligence and economic threat from China, an issue on which Wray has been on the forefront for years, even when Trump was publicly embracing Chinese leaders.
Still, none of that has quieted the frustration by Trump and his allies.
When Meadows was pressed by reporters Friday whether Trump still retained confidence on Wray, he said only: “We have a number of people who continue to serve at the pleasure of the President that he has differing degrees of confidence in.”