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As the FBI comes under threat, its leader tries to stay out of fray

FBI Director Christopher A. Wray confronts a rise in threats against the FBI stemming from the search for classified documents at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago

FBI Director Christopher A. Wray speaks during a news conference Aug. 10 at the FBI field office in Omaha. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

From the moment news broke of the FBI’s search for classified documents at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club, the former president and many of his supporters declared open season on the bureau.

FBI agents who carried out the search were doxed in posts on Trump’s social media network. Violent rhetoric swirled online. One man attempted to breach an FBI field office in Ohio and, after a police chase and six-hour standoff, was shot dead. A Pennsylvania man was arrested and charged with threatening to kill FBI agents. All the while, Trump and other high-profile conservatives piled on, declaring to millions of followers that the FBI was politically compromised and must be dismantled. Some of Trump’s allies cried, “Defund the FBI” — and worse.

In the face of this vitriol, the FBI issued a joint intelligence bulletin warning of an increase in threats, quietly hardened its facilities and scrubbed personal information from websites to protect personnel from possible danger. As he absorbed all this, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray stayed largely out of the national spotlight, in keeping with a norm for the nation’s top law enforcement agency.

Then, on Wednesday, Wray confided in a weekly video call with senior FBI officials that he was “pissed” about the attacks and threats of violence, according to one law enforcement official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private discussions. That flash of anger was a rare hint at the private frustrations of a leader who has seemed determined to avoid the political scandals that dogged his far more publicity-friendly predecessor, James B. Comey.

The past two weeks have presented Wray with one of his most significant leadership challenges in the five years since Trump nominated him to lead the FBI. Despite calls for a more forceful response, including from some former law enforcement officials, Wray has avoided jumping into the public fight over the Justice Department’s investigation of Trump’s handling of classified documents.

Trump’s secrets: How a records dispute led the FBI to search Mar-a-Lago

Wray is no stranger to Trump’s tirades, and his playbook has been to ride out controversies with a quiet professionalism. In the video call, Wray stuck to that approach.

“As I have said over and over and over again these last few years, our best response — and that’s one that can never be questioned or torn apart or taken out of context — is to demonstrate our determination to doing our work the right way,” Wray said at the virtual meeting, according to the law enforcement official.

The FBI has not quantified how many threats it has received, but the bureau and the Department of Homeland Security last Friday issued a joint intelligence bulletin to employees noting an “increase” since the Aug. 8 search of Mar-a-Lago; the bulletin was obtained by The Washington Post.

Officials said the Justice Department has scrambled to remove identifying information from websites and beef up security for personnel who are being targeted by Trump supporters — a now-familiar playbook for federal agencies that land in the former president’s sights.

Each morning, Wray and dozens of the FBI’s top officials gather in one of the most protected rooms at the bureau’s downtown Washington headquarters to discuss the successes of the previous days and the pressing threats of the upcoming one, said a senior FBI official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. In the past 10 days, threats against the FBI have been more frequently mentioned at the morning meetings, with leaders then determining which of these threats are credible and quickly dispatching extra resources to agents and field offices as necessary.

“When you look at the history of the FBI, we have always faced threats,” the senior official said. “But there is certainly an elevated level of threats and substantially increased rhetoric, and we are laser focused on that in terms of protecting our workforce.”

Though Wray has been engaged behind the scenes, he has ceded the limelight to Attorney General Merrick Garland, who in a public statement last week defended the integrity of the Justice Department’s investigation and of the people carrying it out.

“The men and women of the FBI and the Justice Department are dedicated, patriotic public servants,” Garland said.

Longtime department observers note that it’s appropriate for the attorney general — not the FBI director — to take the lead on speaking out on politically charged issues. But some argue that the protocol wasn’t designed for a scenario in which the bureau is facing relentless attacks led by a former president whipping his followers into a dangerous fervor.

Wray’s dilemma is one every agency chief who gets the MAGA mob treatment confronts: Fight back, or stay silent for fear of escalation?

“I respect Chris for being properly circumspect, but there are also times when a leader — any leader — has to talk to his or her troops, and to the public, to knock down baseless and reckless accusations,” said Chuck Rosenberg, who was a senior Justice Department official when Wray headed the department’s Criminal Division, and was a senior aide to two prior FBI directors, Comey and Robert S. Mueller III. “I think you can do so while being faithful to your obligation not to talk about ongoing investigations.”

A list of items seized in the FBI’s search of former president Donald Trump’s Mar-A-Lago home was unsealed on Aug. 12. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

Former FBI officials said Wray is probably more reluctant to speak out because of the intense scrutiny and backlash Comey faced when he broke with FBI tradition and, in the midst of the 2016 presidential election, publicly revealed details about the federal investigation into Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state. Some critics say Comey’s actions made the public perceive the FBI, which has long striven to be seen as independent, as politicized.

“This is a ‘damned if you do, damned if you do not’ moment,” said Frank Figliuzzi, a former FBI assistant director for counterintelligence. “Anything that’s done that is kind of out of the ordinary protocol for a criminal investigation would be viewed in this terrible environment we are in as this terrible political statement. It may serve to further aggravate and inspire these crazy people who are willing to risk their lives to attack the FBI.”

In a July 5, 2016, news conference, Comey announced he was recommending that charges not be brought against Clinton. He also criticized Clinton’s handling of classified information as “extremely careless.” And he disclosed he had not informed the Justice Department leadership beforehand of what he planned to say.

Then, in a surprising move 11 days before the November election, he notified Congress that discovery of new emails had led him to reopen the Clinton investigation. Two days before the election, he announced the probe was closed. Trump narrowly defeated Clinton in one of the most contentious elections in modern history.

The Justice Department inspector general, Michael Horowitz, later issued a 568-page report on the events of 2016 that blasted Comey for “departing so clearly and dramatically from FBI and Department norms,” and doing so in a way that undermined the perception of the FBI and Justice Department as “fair administrators of justice.”

That kind of debacle is anathema to Wray, according to people who know him. Wray, whose low-key temperament is in many ways the opposite of Comey’s, is seen as a calming presence in a turbulent period for the bureau.

Larry Thompson, a former deputy attorney general who was a mentor to Wray, described the FBI director as the kind of person “who obviously will want to do the right thing, but he’ll want to do it in the right way.”

But the Mar-a-Lago search has thrust Wray into an uncomfortable position, as the bureau he leads finds itself in the political crosshairs. Trump has told advisers that in the nearly two years since leaving office, no issue had better galvanized Republican voters around him than the “raid” of his Florida home. He has taken note of how many Republican politicians issued statements criticizing the FBI, even from some he did not expect.

“Everyone is on our side,” Trump told one adviser two days after the search. In another rant several days after the search, he described the FBI in profane terms, calling them “f--kers” who were out “to get him,” according to a person who heard his comments. The former president has grown somewhat paranoid since FBI agents were on his property, positing they might have left behind recording devices, a person who spoke to him said.

After firing Comey four months into his presidency, Trump selected Wray, who had been a partner at King & Spalding and before that served in George W. Bush’s Justice Department, in part on the recommendation of former New Jersey governor Chris Christie. But Trump came to believe the FBI was too intransigent and regularly polled his advisers on whether to fire Wray.

John F. Kelly, one of Trump’s former White House chiefs of staff, said Trump repeatedly told him he wanted an FBI director who was “loyal” to Trump. “I need someone who is loyal,” Trump said, according to Kelly.

Trump’s animus toward the FBI started during the Russia probe led by Mueller as special counsel, Kelly said, but he grew angrier with Wray for not carrying out particular investigations — especially against Clinton, FBI figures and other critics of his.

“He turned on the FBI early on,” Kelly said, adding that Trump was suspicious they would be looking into him. Kelly said Trump did not appreciate that the FBI did not work for him personally.

John Bolton, one of Trump’s former national security advisers, said Trump would rant that the FBI was a “deep state that was out to get me in 2016, and they’re out to get me in 2020.”

Still, Trump had around him in the White House a coterie of lawyers who were defensive of the FBI and Justice Department, particularly former White House counsels Pat Cipollone and Donald McGahn.

In recent days, Trump and his team have weighed releasing security-camera footage of FBI agents searching Mar-a-Lago, believing it would further anger his supporters.

One of Trump’s fixations in the final days of his presidency was exposing the FBI for “Crossfire Hurricane,” former administration officials said, referring to the bureau’s investigation into whether individuals associated with Trump’s 2016 campaign coordinated with Russia’s efforts to interfere in the election, and he has regularly asked about documents related to the probe since leaving office.

Some others in the Republican Party have grown concerned about the anti-FBI tide, an escalation of long-simmering rhetoric about a perceived “tyrannical” federal government that “true patriots” must curtail. Lawmakers throughout the party have cast the Mar-a-Lago search as the work of a “banana republic,” or a “dictatorship.” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, likened the federal government to “the Gestapo.”

“The only people who want us to defund the FBI are the Communist Chinese, the human traffickers south of the border and the drug cartels in Colombia,” said Marc Short, a longtime adviser and former chief of staff to former vice president Mike Pence. “There’s a difference between holding political appointees accountable and saying we’re going to defund the FBI and rank and file.”

The threat to FBI personnel came up at a hearing Thursday before a federal judge in Florida to determine how much information about the Mar-a-Lago search could be made public. Jay Bratt, who heads the Justice Department’s counterintelligence and export control section, argued the government’s position that it was too risky to release additional details: “There is a real concern not just for the safety of these witnesses but to chill other witnesses who may come forward and cooperate in the government’s investigation.”

Yet by keeping details of the investigation and search private, the Justice Department risks letting Trump and his allies set the terms of debate. Bolton, for instance, said the FBI needed to give the public more information or Trump will “just step on them. ... It will play into the narrative he likes that he’s being picked on.”

On Aug. 10, two days after the Mar-a-Lago search, Wray visited the FBI’s field office in Omaha, where he was asked by reporters about the rising threats. He said that “violence against law enforcement is not the answer, no matter who you’re upset with.”

The next day, an armed man clad in body armor sought to breach the FBI’s field office in Cincinnati. Wray put out an email to all FBI employees.

“There has been a lot of commentary about the FBI this week questioning our work and motives,” he wrote. “Much of it is from critics and pundits on the outside who don’t know what we know and don’t see what we see. … As always, the way we maintain the trust and confidence of the American people isn’t by joining in the public commentary. We do it through our work. By showing, when all the facts come out, we stuck to the process.”

He also said, “Let me also assure you that your safety and security are my primary concern right now.”

He signed the email, “Chris.”

On Capitol Hill, Republicans rejected the notion that their fiery condemnations of the FBI’s conduct in searching Trump’s residence contributed to the uptick in threats against federal agents. Asked whether Republican leaders bore any responsibility, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told reporters Friday: “None whatsoever.”

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), a former FBI agent, said he shares in some of the skepticism about the FBI’s conduct but has been urging all colleagues “to reserve judgment until we see the affidavit,” to help clarify reasons for the search. Fitzpatrick said it’s imperative to preserve public trust in national security institutions.

“We cannot do our job without the public supporting us because we rely on public cooperation. We rely on people wanting to work with us wanting to join Team USA, and help us put away bad people, protect our country from terrorist threats,” he said. “When the public starts to lose faith, that’s a big, big deal.”

Carol D. Leonnig and Marianna Sotomayor contributed to this report.