Attorney General William P. Barr expressed exasperation last week that anybody would take exception to his use of the word “spying” to describe how the FBI surveilled and collected information about Trump associates with Russia ties in 2016. “I’m not going abjure the use of the word spying,” Barr said, adding that he didn’t believe it was “pejorative.” “I’m not going to back off the word spying.”
It sounds like FBI Director Christopher A. Wray wishes Barr would.
In his own testimony, Wray said Tuesday that he prefers not to call what the FBI did in 2016 “spying.” It was one of a couple of moments in which the FBI head suggested differences with how Barr and President Trump are handling issues of importance to federal law enforcement.
When asked about Barr’s use of “spying” — a talking point shared by both Trump and a GOP senator on the committee — Wray was diplomatic but he also clearly differed with it.
“Well, that’s not the term I would use,” he said. He added that “different people use different colloquial phrases” and said, “I believe that the FBI is engaged in investigative activity, and part of investigative activity includes surveillance activity of different shapes and sizes. And, to me, the key question is making sure that it’s done by the book, consistent with our lawful authorities.”
Wray was asked about the allegation, favored by Trump, that this surveillance was conducted illegally. Trump and some supporters have cited this surveillance to argue that it was a “coup” attempt. But Wray said there’s no reason to believe it was untoward. “I don’t think I personally have any evidence of that sort,” he said.
Wray was in a tough spot here. On the one hand, “spying” is clearly not a word favored by law enforcement for the kind of work it did to gather information on Carter Page and George Papadopoulos. Despite Barr’s assurances that he didn’t mean it negatively, the definition of the word suggests it is often carried out on opponents or enemies. And it seems to have nefarious connotations for many.
On the other hand, Barr is Wray’s boss as the head of the Justice Department. And like Barr, Wray emphasized that the real issue is whether the law was followed. Barr has said it’s a matter worth looking into, and Wray didn’t seem to begrudge that — at least not explicitly.
It’s tempting to view this as not that significant. Wray was merely expressing his own personal word preference, and he quickly moved on to echo Barr’s broader point. But if this wasn’t an area of contention, Wray could simply have said that. Instead, he felt the need to assert — however diplomatically and briefly — that this wasn’t the preferred nomenclature.
And it wasn’t the only example of things Wray said that could be construed as differing with his bosses. At other points, he was asked whether Russia has been warned enough about the consequences of interfering in the 2020 election like it did in 2016, and he suggested it wasn’t.
“Do you think they’ve gotten the message, or are there more messages to be sent?” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) asked him.
“I think there are still more messages to be sent,” Wray said.
In another exchange, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) asked Wray how helpful it would be to warn Putin about the specific consequences of interfering in 2020. Wray suggested it would be welcome:
VAN HOLLEN: But would you agree that the best defense would be an ability to deter that kind of interference in the first place? In other words, if Putin understood that the costs of interfering in our election outweigh the relatively low cost he’s facing right now, should we explore that option?
WRAY: Well, certainly I think the best part of a defense against a foreign intelligence threat like malign foreign influence includes an offensive capability. You know, sometimes people say the best defense is a good offense. There is a degree to which that applies in this setting.
Neither of these exchanges were explicitly about Trump, but it’s hard to separate them from what happened Friday. After an hour-long phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump told reporters that in all that time he hadn’t brought up possible Russian interference efforts in 2020.
“We didn’t discuss that, really,” Trump said. “We didn’t discuss it.”
This was the first reported conversation between the two leaders since the special counsel report last month concluded Russia had waged a “sweeping and systematic” 2016 election interference effort.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders later suggested that this was nitpicking and that Trump need not always bring such things up — even in a relatively rare conversation with Putin, the man who U.S. intelligence said was behind the 2016 efforts.
“The president’s been clear that no one needs to meddle in our election,” Sanders said. “He doesn’t need to do that every two seconds.”
Trump has been much more reluctant to warn Russia about 2020 than Sanders lets on, though. And apparently Wray would prefer that the president do it at least a little more often. It’s difficult to imagine a much better opportunity to accomplish the goals Wray described than a phone call with Putin.