FBI Director Christopher A. Wray limped gingerly to the podium Thursday evening, nursing a leg injury as he vowed the bureau would emerge stronger from the criticisms leveled in a 500-page inspector general’s report that found insubordination, bias and unprofessional conduct among some of its most senior officials.
“There are some sobering lessons in there,” he said of the report examining how the FBI handled the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state. Inspector General Michael Horowitz lambasted the decision-making of former FBI director James B. Comey and highlighted anti-Trump bias among several agents that he said damaged the bureau’s credibility.
“We’re going to learn those lessons, and we’re going to act on those lessons, and that’s the way the FBI has always handled these things in the past, and that’s what made the FBI stronger,” Wray said.
For two years, the FBI has been whipsawed by political crosswinds — attacked by Democrats for decisions they say damaged Clinton’s presidential bid and by Republicans who, since the 2016 election, have sought to broadly discredit the bureau because of the probe into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.
With the Thursday release of the IG report, Wray tried to signal that new leadership and a renewed focus on the bureau’s policies would put some of those questions to rest, but the political tempest is unlikely to subside.
The report found nothing to indicate that the decision not to charge Clinton was influenced by political bias among the investigators, but it also catalogued numerous instances in which senior FBI officials veered away from Justice Department guidelines, broke protocol or behaved in ways that jeopardized the bureau’s reputation for independence and impartiality.
Acting on recommendations made by Horowitz, Wray’s prescription for the FBI is threefold: first, disciplinary investigations of a handful of personnel found by the inspector general to have engaged in unprofessional internal conversations suggesting political bias. On Thursday, Wray emphasized the need to avoid “even the appearance of personal conflicts or political bias in our work.”
Second, Wray announced an effort to train senior executives, and eventually the entire staff of the FBI, to avoid political bias. The training, which will be based on practices in the federal judiciary, will begin within four months, according to the FBI.
Third, the FBI plans to review a number of its policies — from recusals to penalties for talking to the press — to see whether changes need to be made.
It will take months, at a minimum, to implement those measures, and in the meantime, the internal investigations into the FBI will grind on.
Horowitz’s probe of the FBI’s handling of the Clinton investigation lasted nearly a year and a half, but his office is still pursuing an investigation into how sensitive information about Clinton cases was shared with the press and whether the relationship between FBI personnel and reporters has been too cozy.
The inspector general has also just begun a potentially far-reaching probe into how the FBI has handled the investigation into whether any Trump associates conspired with Russia to interfere with the 2016 election. That probe could take at least as long as the Clinton effort because the Russia investigation is still underway, led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
Since he began serving as FBI director in August, Wray has preached devotion to the agency’s internal processes and procedures as a means of navigating the firestorm surrounding the bureau. It is an implicit departure from the approach of his predecessor, Comey, who was repeatedly criticized in Thursday’s report for breaking with protocol when he announced Clinton would not be charged and when he reopened the email investigation just before Election Day.
Wray insisted that the report’s findings center on a small number of individuals and do not reflect upon the 37,000-person FBI.
Yet that argument has been a hard sell lately, both in the White House — where President Trump regularly attacks senior law enforcement officials and the Russia investigation — and Congress, where Trump’s supporters have kept up a daily drumbeat of accusations against the FBI.
“I’m not going to comment on any other person’s opinions no matter where they are communicated,’’ Wray said. “The opinions that really matter are the opinions of people relevant to our work.”
David Gomez, a former FBI supervisor, said he thought Wray handled the moment well. “He’s doing the right thing, in the sense that whatever the findings are about individuals in the report, that doesn’t impugn the integrity of the entire organization,” Gomez said. “The majority of agents are working not on these cases, but on the regular types of cases at which the FBI excels.”