The new FBI director, Christopher A. Wray, is planning for his installation ceremony next Thursday. By tradition, such events feature a speech from the president, and the FBI's deputy director acts master of ceremonies for a VIP audience including past directors.
That could place President Trump on stage with Deputy Director Andrew McCabe — a man whose integrity the president has repeatedly publicly challenged – and speaking to a front-row audience that includes James B. Comey — the director he dismissed — and Robert S. Mueller III — the special counsel investigating whether Trump attempted to obstruct justice.
Given their recent history and current situation, it's hard to imagine a more ill-suited guest list. Trump fired Comey in May, setting the stage for Mueller's selection as special counsel probing possible coordination between Russia and Trump associates. The events that led up to Comey's firing are now being investigated by Mueller's team to see if the president or anyone around him attempted to obstruct justice.
Earlier this month, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders suggested that the Justice Department should consider prosecuting Comey for his handling of investigations.
Wray was formally sworn in Aug. 2 and has been running the FBI since then. Installation ceremonies are a Washington ritual, usually a feel-good moment to gather friends and family for some glowing, hopeful speeches designed to flatter the new boss and inspire the staff. Comey's installation ceremony in 2013 lasted about 45 minutes, and for much of it he sat on stage next to President Barack Obama, smiling and laughing.
People familiar with the planning for Thursday's ceremony said Comey would likely not attend, and Mueller's attendance was uncertain. A lawyer for Comey declined to comment. A spokesman for Mueller, who attended Comey's installation ceremony, also declined to comment. An FBI spokesman declined to comment.
Ron Hosko, a former FBI official, said it makes sense for Comey not to go. "We know that Jim Comey casts a long shadow, and I think he's probably assessing it in those terms, and he doesn't want to take away from the focus on Wray,'' he said.
Another former director, Louis Freeh, is out of the country on business travel but is trying to rearrange his schedule to make it back for the installation, according to an associate of Freeh's.
Another ex-director, William H. Webster, said the first he'd heard of the event was when a Washington Post reporter called him about it. He praised both Wray and Comey.
"I'm a good friend of Jim Comey's and I think we all make mistakes,'' Webster said. He said he thought Comey erred by arranging for details from a memo he wrote about the president to be shared with a reporter, and he thought Comey misjudged the consequences of his July announcement that he would not pursue criminal charges against Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server when she was secretary of state.
One definite attendee will be Attorney General Jeff Sessions, according to officials. Sessions has recused himself from the Russia probe, a move that greatly angered Trump and led the president to publicly berate him for weeks. Beyond the attorney general, there's a great deal of uncertainty about who will be there. One person familiar with the planning said the event may be most notable for who doesn't come, and what isn't said.
The installation ceremony risks becoming a public reminder of the precarious position the FBI is in these days. In large part because of the investigation into the president and his associates, the FBI is more isolated from the White House — and even the Justice Department leadership — than it has been in years, according to current and former officials.
Current and former FBI executives are dealing with internal conduct investigations and leak probes. Like McCabe, most of Wray's current senior staff are holdovers from the Comey era.
It's unclear whether McCabe will conduct the traditional master of ceremonies role at Thursday's ceremony, which would be particularly awkward given that less than two months ago the president attacked him in a pair of tweets, suggesting that McCabe should have been removed as the acting head of the FBI after Comey was fired because of campaign donations McCabe's wife once received from a close ally of Hillary Clinton.
While the president is expected to attend Thursday's ceremony for Wray, even that is not definite, according to people familiar with the planning.
Even the crowd is a potential wild card in such an affair. Many at the FBI viewed Comey's firing — coming less than halfway through the traditional 10-year-term of an FBI director — as an attack on the independence and integrity of the nation's premier law enforcement agency.
At a July event at headquarters for families of FBI employees, some participants wore T-shirts that said "Comey is my homey,'' a jokey way of indicating their support for the ousted director.
The installation ceremony is traditionally held in the inner courtyard at FBI headquarters, in a space that can accommodate a few hundred people. People familiar with the planning for the event said they don't expect FBI employees to say anything critical, but they added it's unclear how much enthusiasm the president will see in the audience.
If all that isn't fraught enough, events before the installation ceremony could complicate matters even further. Comey is due to give a convocation speech Friday at Howard University.
And on Wednesday, Wray is set to make his first public appearance before Congress as the FBI director, when he testifies before the Senate Homeland Security Committee about domestic threats. He's likely to face at least some questions about the Russia probe.