FBI director Chris Wray barely survived the Trump era. Now he's working with Biden's attorney general taking on domestic terrorism and probing Trump allies.

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Summary List Placement

Attorney General William Barr had just arrived at the White House for a meeting last spring when a Trump aide intercepted him.

Ushered into the Roosevelt Room, Barr encountered Johnny McEntee, the former college quarterback who had become a top Trump aide. McEntee introduced Barr to Bill Evanina, a top counterintelligence official in the administration who had previously worked at the FBI.

“What’s this all about?” Barr asked, failing to see the point of the meeting.

Before long, Barr saw through the awkward introduction. Evanina was being presented as the answer to a question that had stymied the White House as President Donald Trump flirted openly with firing FBI Director Chris Wray: Who, if not Wray, should lead the bureau?

Barr turned on his heels and left the room.

The episode, which has not been previously reported and was described to Insider by a person briefed on the matter, was seen in some corners of the Trump administration as the closest Wray came to getting fired.

When told of the plotting — which also involved replacing then-Deputy FBI Director David Bowdich with the controversial Trump national security advisor Kash Patel — Barr threatened to resign in protest, according to the person briefed on the deliberations.

A year later, Wray now finds himself less a holdover from the Trump administration than a survivor of it. Behind him are the days of a White House out for his head and of a scandal-ridden president griping in private about the federal government’s interest in his own affairs. Gone is the Twitter microphone blasting out the president’s grievances over perceived acts of disloyalty.

“He’ll have more time to devote to the types of things that the FBI director historically has focused on, as opposed to Twitter storms and the latest tantrum or eruption from the White House,” said Charlie Steele, who served as former FBI Director Robert Mueller’s chief of staff from 2004 to 2006.

Wray BarrA personality shift

For Wray, 54, the Biden administration has come with a calmer political climate — at least as far as his job security is concerned.

On the first day of the Biden administration, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was noncommittal when asked whether the president had confidence in Wray. Her non-answer prompted more questions about Wray’s future leading the FBI despite still having more than half of his 10-year term left.

Psaki said the following day that she had caused an “unintentional ripple” with the dodge and clarified that Biden intended to keep Wray atop the bureau.

“He comes to the job with a good deal of relevant experience. The norm is that an FBI director serves his full 10-year term. That was [breached] in the Trump administration,” said Jamie Gorelick, a former deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration. “The attorney general testified that he wanted to reaffirm the norms that have served the department so well, and I’m sure this is one of them.”

But the Biden administration has also come with some measure of whiplash with the change in leadership at the Justice Department. 

Above him now on DOJ’s organizational chart is Attorney General Merrick Garland, a former federal appeals court judge and onetime nominee for the Supreme Court. Garland’s measured, soft-spoken style represents marked change from the famously brash Barr, who was nicknamed “the Buffalo” for his hard-charging ways.

Read more: Meet Merrick Garland’s inner circle of 18 officials. They’ve got a packed plate investigating major police departments and even Rudy Giuliani.

“Barr is a force of nature and pure id,” a former Justice Department official said. “Garland may be finding himself having a similar experience to Wray’s: They’re thoughtful, reserved institutionalists who are doing their best to guide institutions they cherish through a highly politically-charged time in our nation’s history, having to navigate the currents in both directions.”

In nearly a dozen interviews, current and former DOJ officials said Garland represents more of a personality fit for the low-key FBI director, who was confirmed in early August 2017, just months after Trump’s abrupt firing of James Comey set off a chain of events that led to Robert Mueller’s appointment as special counsel to run the Russia investigation. 

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New priorities for Wray in the Biden era

The arrival of Biden-appointed leadership nonetheless marks the first significant reset for Wray in his relationship with the main Justice Department.

Under the new administration, DOJ is in the midst of politically-sensitive criminal investigations into Trump allies such as Rep. Matt Gaetz and Rudy Giuliani, addresses the rising threat of domestic terrorism, and reprioritizing police reform after a moribund four years inside its civil rights division.

On Garland’s first day at the Justice Department, Wray helped brief the attorney general on the investigation into the deadly rioting at the US Capitol, which has resulted in hundreds of prosecutions against members of a pro-Trump mob. Two have been in almost daily contact since, whether in phone calls or in-person meetings.

In the months and years ahead, the working relationship will be molded by that investigation and the Justice Department’s broader efforts to address domestic terrorism, current and former officials said.

Read more: Inside Merrick Garland’s bid to boost morale in the federal prosecutor’s office handling the January 6th Capitol riot cases, one of the largest investigations in US history

“The domestic terrorism investigation is the most pressing and sprawling investigation in the department right now,” said Gorelick, now a top partner at the law firm Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale and Dorr. “You don’t control what comes at you as attorney general, and that relationship has to work really well for the department to be working really well.”

In the immediate aftermath of the Trump administration, the Justice Department and Wray’s FBI are also ramping up investigations into Giuliani’s Ukraine dealings during his time as the former president’s personal lawyer.  

The FBI executed search warrants on Giuliani’s home and office in Manhattan in late April, prompting the former New York City mayor to condemn the move as reflecting a “corrupt double standard” by the Justice Department, which he said ignored crimes by prominent Democrats.

Read more: 5 things to know about the US law designed to fight Nazi propaganda that now has Rudy Giuliani sweating

Gaetz has made similar claims in the face of a sex trafficking investigation that started under Barr’s leadership. In a recent op-ed, the Florida GOP congressman wrote, “Although I’m sure some partisan crooks in Merrick Garland’s Justice Department want to pervert the truth and the law to go after me, I will not be intimidated or extorted.”

Garland emphasized in his Senate confirmation proceedings that he would act strictly according to the law and not be influenced by politics. But the public attacks on the investigations into Trump allies underscore how claims of political bias will persist and present political headaches for Garland and Wray on the heels of an era in which Trump and his allies vilified by name specific FBI agents and staff who had been on the case to investigate him. 

 

Wray’s FBI will also play a key role in DOJ’s investigations into police departments across the US. In his first weeks as attorney general, Garland has announced probes focusing on Minneapolis and Louisville, which follow the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police in those jurisdictions.

In interviews, former government officials said those police investigations could test the relationships between Biden appointees and Wray, a 30-year member of the Federalist Society who rose to prominence inside conservative legal circles and held top roles at the Justice Department under the George W. Bush administration.

“Those can obviously raise tricky issues for federal law enforcement components that work with and cooperate with state and local law enforcement,” a former Justice Department official said.

Common experience 

Garland and Wray bring shared experience to their new working relationship. 

In the Clinton administration, Garland served as Gorelick’s top advisor in the role of principal associate deputy attorney general — the highest Justice Department position that doesn’t require Senate confirmation. Wray held the same top role in the George W. Bush administration under Comey before being confirmed to head DOJ’s criminal division. That position helped launch him into a lucrative career in mid-2005 as a white-collar defense partner at the law firm King & Spalding.

kamala harris merrick garland

Now back in government, Wray reports to Garland and the Justice Department’s second-ranking official, Lisa Monaco, who headed the national security division under the Obama administration. All three worked earlier in their careers as line prosecutors, with Monaco and Garland both hailing from the US attorney’s office in Washington, which is now handling the hundreds of Capitol riot cases. Wray had been an assistant US attorney in the federal prosecutor’s office in Atlanta.

“I think there’s a lot of similarity between Chris and the attorney and the deputy AG,” said former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, who hired Wray as his top deputy during the Bush administration. “Each of them has a great deal of experience in the Department of Justice, they’re all thoroughly professional, and I think they share great fidelity to the department as an institution.”

A senior FBI official said that, while Wray and Garland never crossed paths during their Justice Department tenures, they were connected by their past roles. In 1995, Garland led the investigation of the Oklahoma City bombing as the principal associate deputy attorney general. When Wray held that role years later, he was involved in bringing the case to a close.

“They are linked in that sense by having bookended that case, in a sense,” the FBI official said.

‘The consummate institutionalist’

Trump nominated Wray in 2017 after firing Comey, whose removal just four years into his 10-year term was examined by Mueller’s special counsel office as part of its investigation into whether the former president sought to obstruct the Russia investigation. 

At the time of the firing, Trump purported to base the decision on Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. Comey had come under fire for going around Justice Department leadership and announcing that an investigation into Clinton, then the Democratic frontrunner to be its 2016 presidential nominee, should be closed without prosecution. That July 2016 press conference was seen even among some Comey supporters as the outgrowth of a self-righteous streak and confidence rooted in his tenure as deputy attorney general during the Bush administration. 

 

At the FBI, Comey was known for an affable approach that featured recommendations for bureau staff to sleep, “fight for balance in their lives” and to “love somebody,” as he wrote in his book “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership.” Comey wore blue dress shirts, occasionally started meetings with jokes, asked about weekends and vacations — all in a departure from the starchier style of Mueller during his tenure as FBI director.

In his early years at the FBI, Wray came to be seen within the Justice Department as an enigmatic figure with his reserved, down-to-business approach.

“Wray is not the charismatic leader that Comey was. His whole focus is on the work,” one former top FBI official told Insider.

“He’s the consummate institutionalist in terms of understanding that he heads a bureau, he reports to the [deputy attorney general]. He’s not an icon like Mueller or Comey. He’s very much a traditional, by-the-book, knows-where-he-fits-into-the-organization kind of FBI director,” the former official added.

And in a contrast with Comey, who was seen as struggling to report to the deputy attorney general after once holding that role himself, Wray has demonstrated an ability to preserve the FBI’s independence while acknowledging his place in the larger Justice Department’s chain of command.

“It’s not unique to Wray that there’s always this sort of tension between the FBI as a subcomponent of the Department of Justice and the FBI as an autonomous institution. I think he’s fully aware of the dynamics on both sides of that and does his best to navigate them,” a former Justice Department official said.

James Comey and Jeff Sessions

Brushes with firing

Wray’s tenure atop the FBI has endured not just because Trump never ultimately fired him. Indeed, before Trump raised the threat of removing him, it was Wray who was threatening to resign.

Shortly after his confirmation in 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions wanted Wray to fire Andrew McCabe, who had stepped in as the acting FBI director following Comey’s ouster. At the time, Wray thought highly of McCabe and refused to make the move despite pressure from Sessions and the Trump White House, according to a person familiar with his response. 

In his pushback, Wray threatened to quit. 

Months later, after DOJ’s inspector general found that McCabe misled internal investigators about his his disclosure of information to a Wall Street Journal reporter, Wray did not push back against his firing. McCabe challenged his termination in federal court, and under the Biden administration, the Justice Department has begun to “explore the possibility of a settlement,” according to a recent court filing in the case.

Wray found himself in the political crucible later in his tenure as Trump publicly voiced disappointment over the FBI director’s statements about antifa, voter fraud, and Russia’s election interference efforts. In congressional testimony and other statements, Wray was seen as not embracing — or even contradicting — Trump’s frequently false and overhyped claims.

During the runup to the 2020 election, Trump said Wray would not be “doing a very good job” if he didn’t acknowledge the potential of widespread voter fraud, which the FBI director disputed as being a rampant issue. Wray’s description of antifa as an ideology ran counter to Trump’s view that it should be designated as a terror group. That caused friction with DOJ leaders, who thought stronger language was appropriate for the loose network of antifascist protesters, according to a former official familiar with the deliberations.

As Trump’s ire toward Wray built, Barr repeatedly stepped in to run interference or outright shield the FBI director, according to people familiar with his efforts. Barr and Wray had built a relationship that improved over weekly lunches and as the two worked together responding to the widespread social unrest that followed Floyd’s killing in police custody last year.

Under the Biden administration, Wray now enters a new era with an opportunity to show how he operates without a president demanding loyalty and a potential firing always in the background.

“His focus is more on the basic blocking and tackling the FBI does, and less on remaking the organization,” a former top FBI official said. “And, as a result, internally and externally, some will criticize him and some will say, ‘That’s the way a director is supposed to do it.'”

“No FBI director can make everybody happy,” the former bureau official added.

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