President Trump escalated his long-running attacks on the FBI Tuesday, calling recent remarks by Director Christopher A. Wray “ridiculous,” as officials said a senior prosecutor would examine the roles of the bureau and the CIA in the early stages of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible coordination with members of the Trump campaign.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Trump said Wray gave a “ridiculous answer” during congressional testimony last week when he declined to characterize an FBI investigation of Trump campaign advisers in 2016 as “spying.’’
The president’s public criticism of Wray — the man he picked to run the FBI after firing James B. Comey two years ago — showed how tensions between the White House and the Justice Department continue even in the aftermath of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation.
Trump’s comments marked the second time in three days that he has taken a public swipe at Wray — over the weekend, the president tweeted a quote from a conservative activist saying that the FBI “has no leadership.”
Wray’s testimony to a Senate panel stood in contrast to comments made by Attorney General William P. Barr at a hearing last month at which he told lawmakers that “spying did occur” during the investigation into Russian election interference and called it “a big deal.”
As he prepared to depart the White House on Tuesday, Trump was asked whether he retained confidence in Wray, given the director’s answer.
“Well, I didn’t understand his answer because I thought the attorney general answered it perfectly,” Trump said.
The FBI declined to comment on Trump’s remarks.
At last week’s hearing, Wray was asked by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) whether he agreed with Barr’s characterization of “spying.”
“That’s not the term I would use,” said Wray, who tried to make clear that although he did not use the term “spying,” he was not picking a fight with those who do.
“There are lots of people who have different colloquial phrases,” Wray said. “To me, the key question is making sure it’s done by the book, consistent with our lawful authorities.”
Wray said he had not seen any evidence that illegal surveillance was conducted on individuals associated with Trump’s campaign.
Last month, Barr tapped John Durham, the U.S. attorney for Connecticut, to investigate the origins of the investigation into Russian interference and whether any Trump associates conspired with those efforts. A report by Mueller made public last month showed that the special counsel did not find such a conspiracy between the Kremlin and people in the campaign.
Officials familiar with the Durham appointment said he began working on the matter last month and is getting assistance from leaders at the FBI, CIA, and Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Barr has previously said that he is not interested solely in what the FBI did, but the role of the intelligence agencies as well. Officials said Tuesday that Durham’s investigation will examine the actions of the FBI and CIA from the summer of 2016 up to Trump’s inauguration. Trump said he had not asked Barr to appoint Durham but added, “I think it’s a great thing that he did it.”
The president has repeatedly characterized efforts to investigate possible coordination between Russia and his campaign as an attempted coup.
“It was the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the people of this country, and you know what, I am so proud of our attorney general, that he is looking into it,” he said. “I think it’s great.”
Republicans have accused FBI leaders of using flimsy or false claims to get court surveillance orders on former Trump adviser Carter Page in 2016 and 2017. They have also accused senior FBI officials of political bias against Trump. Current and former FBI officials have defended the bureau’s actions, saying they were obligated to investigate allegations of wrongdoing.
Durham’s appointment marks the third time a Justice Department official has been tapped to review the origins of the Russia investigation.
Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz is expected to release a report in a month or two about the court surveillance applications obtained against Page. Horowitz’s investigation largely centers on how Justice Department and FBI officials used the authority of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to surveil Page, according to people familiar with the matter, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive inquiry.
Separately, Utah U.S. Attorney John Huber, had been expected to pick up any investigative threads from the inspector general’s review that needed further investigation, according to one person familiar with the matter. Now that Durham has been tapped to probe the origins of the investigation, this person said, much of that work will likely fall to Durham rather than Huber.
Huber has also been examining how the FBI and Justice Department investigated Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016. That work has largely concluded, according to people familiar with the matter.
Durham has a long track record of scrutinizing potential misconduct by government officials, including at the CIA. In 2009 he was assigned to investigate the destruction by CIA officials of videotapes that showed parts of the interrogations of two terrorism suspects who were waterboarded. He also investigated the deaths in U.S. custody of two other detainees at facilities overseas.
In recent years, he was also given the job of investigating a potential leak of classified information, an inquiry that centered around then-FBI general counsel James Baker.
The first two investigations were closed with no charges filed. The third has been dormant for more than a year, and no charges are expected to be filed in that matter, according to people familiar with the probe.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters Tuesday that his panel would postpone its plans to examine the origins of the Russia investigation now that Durham had been appointed.
“Seems like a good choice. Seems to have a reputation of being fair-minded,” Graham said. “So what I want to do is, now he’s in this thing, is back off, listen to Horowitz, and try to find out what can we do to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Julie Tate and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.