Three days after federal agents searched former President Donald Trump’s Florida home for classified documents, FBI Director Christopher Wray emailed his workforce urging them to tune out criticism from those who “don’t know what we know and don’t see what we see.”
The work was done by the book, the director wrote in his Aug. 11 email. “We don’t cut corners. We don’t play favorites.”
The internal message was an acknowledgment of the unprecedented nature of the search and the subsequent pummeling the bureau had been receiving from Trump and his supporters. It also was a recognition that the FBI had been navigating a moment so fraught that the normally taciturn Wray felt compelled to address employees about the ramifications of the investigation.
The pressures on Wray and the FBI have grown since then and are only likely to intensify. In its long history, the FBI has rarely been at the center of so many politically sensitive investigations. Agents are simultaneously examining the retention of classified documents by Trump and President Joe Biden. And they’re scrutinizing efforts by Trump and his allies to overturn the 2020 election ahead of the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol.
The probes, overseen by Justice Department special counsels, are unfolding in a hyper-partisan environment as the 2024 presidential election nears and as Congress launches its own investigations of the FBI. All the while, the bureau has been subjected to regular attacks from Trump, his supporters and influential right-wing pundits, with the former president saying FBI “misfits” are less credible than Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In an interview with The Associated Press this week, Wray acknowledged the FBI was enduring tough times. But he downplayed the impact the “noise” had on day-to-day work, insisting the opinions he most valued were those of “the people we do the work for and those we do the work with.”
“I look not just at the one or two investigations being discussed breathlessly on social media or cable news but at the impact we’re having across the country to protect the American people,” he said.
Adding to the tension: Republicans are using their newly minted House majority to investigate the investigators, accusing the FBI of abuses ranging from unfairly targeting Trump to suppressing free speech. They’ve highlighted disputed, uncorroborated whistleblower complaints against supervisors that the FBI for privacy reasons says it’s constrained from fully responding to.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a Wray critic and chair of the House Judiciary Committee, told the AP last week he supported rank-and-file agents but was concerned about the leadership.
For Wray, the turbulence is more a continuation of a recent trend than something new.
He was appointed by Trump in 2017 after the chaotic firing of his predecessor, James Comey, and as the FBI investigated ties between Russia and Trump’s 2016 campaign. Furious over that probe, Trump lashed out at Wray for the remainder of his term and openly flirted with firing him.
The director fastidiously ignored the verbal assaults, adhering to a “keep calm and tackle hard” mantra that he has repeatedly conveyed to agents but that can seem incongruous with a climate that is decidedly not calm. His approach did not change as the bureau initiated investigations involving the current and former presidents.
“We’re not well-served by wading into the fray, taking the bait and responding to every breathless allegation,” Wray told the AP. “So we will continue to push back and correct the record when we appropriately can. But as long as I’m director we’re going to follow the FBI’s long history and tradition of letting our work do the talking.”
The AP spoke to about two dozen current and former FBI officials for this story. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss FBI matters publicly. Many of those interviewed said they were distressed to see the FBI entangled in politics, lamenting not only the barrage of attacks the bureau faces but also Justice Department policies and actions, like a memo directing the FBI to address threatening rhetoric at school board meetings, that they believe have injected the bureau into the partisan fray and invited criticism.
Some who are personally supportive of Wray and respect his approach to the job contend he and the FBI could more forcefully punch back against false narratives and do better in explaining its work to the public. That’s admittedly a complicated calculus for the FBI given that Comey was widely criticized for public statements about the Hillary Clinton email probe, an experience that exists as a cautionary tale for the more circumspect Wray.
Greg Brower, who worked with Comey and Wray when he was the FBI’s top liaison to Congress, said he believes Wray strives to do what’s right without regard to pressure and was unlikely to adapt his style to satisfy critics. Though not inclined to second-guess Wray, he said it could be argued that Wray’s “conventional” style should be modified for unconventional times and that aggressive pushback was needed to prevent false narratives from taking hold.
“It does appear sometimes that the narrative that the bureau’s opponents are creating, the very often false narrative, it takes on a life of its own and becomes reality for all intents and purposes. It causes the bureau to be completely mischaracterized in a way that’s hard to undo,” Brower said.
Joshua Skule, a former top agent, echoed that assessment, saying “truth is decaying in our society. To combat that, you have to overcommunicate, in the field office and from headquarters.”
Though the attacks aren’t always rooted in facts, the perception matters because regardless of how the Trump and Biden investigations are resolved, the FBI and Justice Department will have to persuade the public that the probes were done thoroughly and professionally.
The partisan environment magnifies self-inflicted wounds that have damaged the FBI’s credibility, making it more difficult to counter conspiracy theories and questionable narratives.
The recent indictment of an ex-FBI counterintelligence official gave FBI critics fodder. The FBI came under pressure at a congressional hearing last week over a leaked field office memo that warned of potential Catholic extremists, a document Attorney General Merrick Garland called “appalling” and said had been withdrawn. Older errors during the Trump-Russia investigation, including bungled wiretap applications targeting a Trump aide, continue to shadow the bureau years later.
“We take those to heart each and every day,” FBI Deputy Director Paul Abbate said about the Trump-Russia mistakes in a separate interview.
The inherent tripwires of politically explosive investigations were manifest last summer, when some in the FBI resisted the idea of serving a search warrant at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, believing a more cautious approach was better and that the Trump team was entitled to more time to cooperate, according to a person with knowledge of the talks. The Washington Post earlier reported the disagreements.
In the days after the search, as U.S. officials warned of an alarming spike in threats against the FBI, a 42-year-old Trump supporter attacked the FBI’s Cincinnati field office. No FBI employees were harmed, but police killed the gunman.
For his part, Wray said he tries to communicate as much as he can about the FBI’s work, including about the Chinese espionage threat or other priorities, but no matter how much he does so, “the focus is on the manufactured controversies of the day or the one or two cases that get all the attention.”
He believes a key part of his job is to step up outreach to his 38,000-member workforce. Besides the message after the Mar-a-Largo search, he held an employee town hall in December, taking questions about public perception of the FBI, agent safety and allegations of politicization.
He also frequently visits the bureau’s 56 field offices to speak to agents and local law enforcement. Last month, he journeyed to Norfolk, Virginia, where he discussed violent crime prevention and national security issues. But national politics intruded even there.
During a news conference with local journalists, Wray was asked whether the recent and intense public scrutiny of the bureau was impeding investigations. He offered a rosy take, saying that though he understood the concern, the FBI was “humming along and growing like gangbusters.”
”At the end of the day,” he said of the workforce, “they’re not doing it to attract popularity contests on social media or to win the adoration of pundits.”
AP Congressional Correspondent Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.