The president’s comment marks the first time he has weighed in on the bureau’s failure to investigate a Jan. 5 tip about 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, who this week was charged with shooting and killing 17 people at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
The FBI acknowledged the tip on Friday, saying a person close to Cruz had warned a call taker on the bureau’s general tipline that the young man had a desire to kill and might attack a school. The bureau said that information was not passed to agents in the field for investigation — an apparent breach of protocol.
The resources devoted to the Russia case should not have had any direct effect on the FBI’s response in Florida because the tip about Cruz, although reported to a call-center supervisor, never reached agents who would do an investigation, officials have said.
Still, the incident comes at a precarious time for the FBI. Conservative lawmakers already had been reviewing the bureau’s handling of two hotly charged political matters: the probe of possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election; and the now-closed investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.
On Friday, the chairs of three powerful congressional committees that oversee the bureau sent letters demanding briefings on the FBI’s Florida misstep, while others lambasted the bureau for its apparent failure.
“The fact that the FBI is investigating this failure is not enough,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said in a statement. “Both the House and Senate need to immediately initiate their own investigations into the FBI’s protocols for ensuring tips from the public about potential killers are followed through. Lawmakers and law enforcement personnel constantly remind the public that ‘if you see something, say something.’ In this tragic case, people close to the shooter said something, and our system utterly failed the families of seventeen innocent souls.”
The FBI declined to comment on the various congressional requests.
While lawmakers and federal law enforcement officials assessed their response, state authorities were left to prepare for one of the state’s highest-profile prosecutions in recent memory. Michael J. Satz, the state attorney for Broward County, said Saturday that the incident was “the type of case the death penalty was designed for,” though his office would not formally announce whether it will seek such a sentence so families have time to mourn.
Trump has been highly critical of investigators’ actions in both of those cases, and some in the bureau have worried his persistent attacks might do lasting damage to the premier federal law enforcement agency’s reputation.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) seized on the FBI’s failure to investigate Cruz and called Friday for FBI Director Christopher A. Wray to resign.
“Seventeen innocent people are dead and acknowledging a mistake isn’t going to cut it,” Scott said in a statement.
Scott’s call, though, did not immediately seem to gain wide traction. Trump, for example, did not mention Wray by name in his Tweet late Saturday. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi (R), who, like Scott, is an ally of Trump, said on Fox News, “The people who had that information and did not do anything with it, they are the ones that need to go.”
Republican leaders who oversee the FBI, while highly critical of the bureau, also did not immediately call for the director to step down.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), chair of the House Oversight Committee, sent a letter to Wray demanding that the bureau brief the committees by no later than March 2 on why the agency did not act on a January tip about the suspected shooter and his propensity for violence. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also asked that the bureau brief his committee staffers by the end of next week.
Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) said of the governor’s call for Wray to resign: “He does not want to talk about gun control, so he is attacking the FBI.”
On Friday night, Trump had praised the FBI during a visit with law enforcement officials who responded to the shooting.
“We had a lot of FBI guys down here quickly. So great job; thank you very much,” Trump said to an FBI special agent who was among those at the Broward County Sheriff’s Office.
White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said Saturday on Fox News: “Director Wray obviously understood that there were mistakes made at the FBI. He made that clear; he took responsibility for it.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he had directed his deputy attorney general, the No. 2 law enforcement official in the country, to look into the matter.
The bureau has in recent years faced significant scrutiny over whether it responds forcefully enough to possible threats. Agents had previously investigated the man who gunned down 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016 but ultimately concluded they could take no action against him. The FBI also had prior contact with the man charged with killing five people at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport last year. He had walked into an FBI field office and made bizarre, though not threatening, statements.
The FBI’s call center in 2017 received more than 766,000 calls, though law enforcement officials said they do not believe the lapse in the Florida case was one due to too much volume, but rather a failure to appropriately assess the particular tip.
Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said police had received about 20 calls for service in recent years regarding Cruz, whom neighbors knew to be troubled. He had been expelled from school, and the administration there sent an email to teachers with a vague suggestion of concern about him.
Howard Finkelstein, the Broward County public defender representing Cruz, said that multiple government agencies failed to prevent what was an avoidable tragedy.
“It is the most horrific crime I’ve ever seen,” Finkelstein said. “And I am overwhelmingly saddened that every single system failed, which means to me we don’t have a system. . . . If this person didn’t get anybody’s attention, nobody will.”
Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.