The FBI thrust its low-key director squarely into the public eye and potentially into the crosshairs of the president Wednesday when it issued a statement declaring the bureau had “grave concerns” with a not-yet-public GOP memo that questions the basis to surveil a former Trump campaign adviser.
FBI Director Christopher A. Wray had privately warned the White House against releasing the memo, but as it became clearer Wednesday that his entreaties were likely to be rejected, his agency issued a terse two-paragraph message laying bare its worries about the document.
“With regard to the House Intelligence Committee’s memorandum, the FBI was provided a limited opportunity to review this memo the day before the committee voted to release it,” the statement said. “As expressed during our initial review, we have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”
For months, President Trump has attacked the Justice Department and the FBI — calling his handpicked attorney general “beleaguered” and saying the bureau’s reputation was “in tatters.” Wray, though, had largely been spared the president’s ire. Just more than a week ago, the White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump had “100 percent confidence” in his director.
The showdown over the memo could be a defining moment for Wray — threatening to alienate him from the president as he demonstrates his independence. Trump already fired James B. Comey after the FBI director would not give him a hard vow of loyalty, and he has toyed with ousting Attorney General Jeff Sessions, despite Sessions’s vigorous implementation of the president’s agenda.
Trump also is said to have recently suggested firing Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who, because Sessions recused himself, is supervising special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s contact with agents of the Russian government. According to a person familiar with his comments, the president has told advisers the memo might make people realize how the FBI and Mueller are biased against him, and that could give him reason to force Rosenstein out.
Friends and supporters of Wray say he is a cautious decision-maker who attempts to weigh all the possible consequences of his actions before he commits to doing anything — and probably would have carefully considered publicly criticizing the memo before doing so.
Wray, they say, also generally shirks the spotlight but is not afraid of making a public stand if he thinks that is the proper course.
“I’m sure he would love to serve the president and have a good working relationship with him, but he’s going to do what he thinks is right,” said Joe Robuck, a retired FBI agent and friend of Wray, adding, “He’s not going to care about whether it puts his job in jeopardy.”
The spat over the memo has been brewing for weeks. It comes as Wray has dealt with staff changes in FBI leadership and controversy surrounding Andrew McCabe, his former deputy director who stepped down from his post Monday amid a Justice Department inspector general investigation.
The four-page memo — produced by the office of Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) — is said to raise questions about whether the FBI had bad information from a controversial dossier of allegations against Trump when it sought a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court warrant on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
That could provide fodder to conservatives wanting to discredit the ongoing investigation into Trump’s campaign, though some who have reviewed the memo say it might not paint quite as damaging a picture as some Republicans hope and that it omits key details.
Nunes said in a statement: “Having stonewalled Congress’ demands for information for nearly a year, it’s no surprise to see the FBI and DOJ issue spurious objections to allowing the American people to see information related to surveillance abuses at these agencies. The FBI is intimately familiar with ‘material omissions’ with respect to their presentations to both Congress and the courts, and they are welcome to make public, to the greatest extent possible, all the information they have on these abuses.”
Law enforcement analysts say commenting on any omissions in the Nunes memo could be difficult, as the material left out could be classified and too sensitive for the FBI to reveal publicly, even in defense of its own reputation.
The memo has been fraught from the start. House Republicans launched a campaign calling for its public release even before the Justice Department had seen it. That drew a stern warning from the Justice Department, which wrote in a letter last week the document should not be made public before national security officials there could review it.
On Sunday, Wray looked at the document, and Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) said the FBI director asked lawmakers to let him brief them on why revealing it could be problematic. They did not let him do so and, on Monday, voted along party lines to authorize its release. That triggered an up to five-day review process by the White House, which could still block its release. Republican lawmakers did not authorize the release of a Democratic memo that might have served as a rebuttal.
Just before that, Wray and Rosenstein went to the White House on Monday and tried to plead with Chief of Staff John F. Kelly to keep the memo under wraps. Kelly told them that while Trump was inclined to release the memo, the White House would go through a review led by the National Security Council and the White House Counsel’s Office.
Then Tuesday night, after Trump’s State of the Union address, the president told a lawmaker the memo would become public.
“Oh, yeah, oh, don’t worry,” Trump, caught on a hot mic, told Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), who had asked him to release the memo. “One hundred percent.”
Meanwhile, officials at the Justice Department and FBI — who had been silent on the issue, save for the Justice Department’s warning letter — strategized about a public statement.
Spokesmen for both the Justice Department and the FBI declined to comment beyond the bureau’s statement.
Wray, who worked as a top Justice Department official during the George W. Bush administration and left a law firm position to lead the FBI, has had to defend himself and the bureau from Trump’s attacks before. He appeared before the House Judiciary Committee not long after the president tweeted that his agency’s reputation was in “tatters,” telling legislators, “The FBI that I see is people, decent people, committed to the highest principles of dignity and professionalism and respect.”
FBI directors are appointed to 10-year terms to remove them from the political process — though they are accountable to the attorney general and can be fired by the president. It is also not unheard of for presidents and their FBI directors to not get along. President Bill Clinton fired FBI Director William Sessions over allegations of ethics violations, and Clinton feuded with a subsequent FBI director, Louis Freeh.
The FBI’s statement did not indicate what Wray might do were the memo to be released despite his agency’s concerns.
He has shown a willingness to consider resigning when the department is under political pressure. When Comey in 2004 was prepared to quit as the deputy attorney general over concerns about reauthorization of a secretive domestic surveillance program, Wray approached him in the hall at the Justice Department and said, “Look, I don’t know what’s going on, but before you guys all pull the rip cords, please give me a heads-up so I can jump with you,” according to an account of the incident in the Washingtonian magazine.