President Donald Trump has had difficulty articulating a second-term agenda. But there is one thing he's itching to do if he wins another four years in the White House: ditch his FBI director Christopher Wray, whom he privately trashes as a tool of a supposed “deep state.”
Over the past three months before testing positive for COVID-19, the president had indicated to several senior officials and close associates that he intends to replace Wray near the start of a second term in office, routinely expressing dissatisfaction with the director’s performance and apparent unwillingness to swiftly root out Trump’s perceived enemies in the bureau, two people familiar with the president’s private remarks said. One of these sources said that when the issue of Wray’s alleged subversion came up last month, Trump said that the matter would be resolved “next year,” which this source took to mean after the 2020 election, assuming Trump emerges victorious.
Trump’s desire to dump Wray is pronounced enough that, this summer, he solicited recommendations from close advisers on who they think he should choose as a replacement, the knowledgeable sources said. One of them said they provided Trump with “a couple suggestions” but declined to name names. Neither of these people who’d spoken to the president recently about Wray recalled him mentioning anything about axing the FBI director before the November election.
The political calendar complicates plans to fire Wray. If Trump dumps him during the intermediary period before a new Congress is sworn in, or if the Republicans keep hold of the Senate, Trump can afford to lose potentially a handful of Republican votes when the nominee comes up for confirmation. Should the Democrats take control of the Senate and Trump maintain office, it’ll be harder to place a loyalist into the post.
As Axios reported in May, efforts among prominent Trumpworld figures to convince the president to fire Wray, who was confirmed with an overwhelming Senate vote, has rapidly intensified this year. Late last month, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows openly mocked Wray during a CBS interview, alleging that the FBI director “has a hard time finding emails in his own FBI let alone figuring out whether there is any kind of voter fraud.” Last week, after the director of national intelligence circulated Russian disinformation accusing Hillary Clinton of fabricating allegations that Russia meddled in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf, Trump ally Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) called Wray “complicit” and demanded his resignation. Wray joined the FBI about a year after the FBI’s Trump-Russia inquiry began.
Lawyer and conservative-media darling Joe diGenova, who’s informally advised Trump, told The Daily Beast on Wednesday evening that the current FBI director has “been completely inadequate and not up to the challenge of reforming the FBI,” arguing that Wray should have delivered a speech to FBI officials following the ouster of his predecessor, James Comey, about how he was “embarrassed by previous leadership.” By not doing so, the Trump loyalist contended, Wray “sent a signal that what preceded was OK. That is not a leader.”
DiGenova, who said his preferred pick for the next director is former New York City police commissioner Ray Kelly, said, “I hope Christopher Wray is removed tomorrow.”
Wray has had a rough tenure at the FBI after he was tapped by Trump to replace Comey in 2017. Trump and his allies have accused the FBI of misconduct for investigating Trump’s connections to the Russian interference in the 2016 election—some of it deserved. That’s only intensified in 2020, as Wray’s FBI has been conspicuous by its absence in the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security crackdowns on protests in Washington, D.C. and Portland, Oregon.
But Wray has been particularly out of step with the president’s priorities in recent weeks. He testified, accurately, that antifa was more a “movement or an ideology”—antifascism—than the terrorist organization Trump portrays. He has emphasized that Russia is a particular danger for 2020 election interference. He, like the FBI, has warned that white supremacist violence is the premier domestic terrorism threat facing the United States. And he has undermined Trump’s misinformation campaign that mail-in voting is a vector for election theft, telling Congress for the FBI there is no evidence of “coordinated national voter fraud.”
The FBI director’s ongoing public divergences with Trump, and Wray’s reluctance to settle Trump’s scores, have further solidified the president’s desire to remove Wray, those close to Trump said.
In the past three weeks, a source close to Trump recounted the president suddenly bringing up Wray in an unrelated conversation, citing critical TV commentary he’d recently watched, including that of Fox Business star and Trump confidant Lou Dobbs savaging the bureau’s director. Dobbs regularly broadcasts segments portraying Wray as a leader in some nefarious “Obamagate” “cover-up.” The host floated the idea of indicting Wray this summer.
The FBI declined comment on this story, as did two of Wray’s friends. White House spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment.
Many but not all retired FBI agents consider Wray a bulwark against Trump turning a domestic investigative agency with tremendous power over Americans’ freedom into an adjunct of the White House. At a time when Trump has placed loyalists atop crucial security agencies—John Ratcliffe as director of national intelligence, Chad Wolf as acting Secretary of Homeland Security and Attorney General Bill Barr—there is worry over what a re-elected Trump will instruct a post-Wray FBI to do.
Wilfred Rattigan, a retired FBI special agent, said his colleagues still at the bureau tell him the tensions with Trump are constant distractions.
“Morale is dipping. Instead of focusing on their mission and their mandate, they’re concerned with what comes out of the White House next,” said Rattigan. “‘Is Wray out, who’s going to replace him, are we going to go back to what we were before? It’s a distraction.”
Rattigan saw previous directors clash with presidents, like Louis Freeh did with Bill Clinton in the 1990s. But he said the situation with Trump is different.
“If your leadership is entangled with the White House over who should and should not be investigated and when, what kind of message does that send to the troops?” he said.
Michael German, another retired FBI special agent, pointed out that Wray’s statements—and the bureau’s actions—are less opposed to Trump than Trump’s loyalists believe.
“The idea that the FBI in general or Director Wray in particular are anti-Trump or oppositional to the Trump policies is ludicrous, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump believes it’s true,” said German, now with the Brennan Center for Justice.
In the same congressional testimony where Wray described antifa ephemerally, he contradicted himself by saying antifa was coalescing into “regional small groups or nodes” that the FBI is actively investigating. The FBI has also been documented interrogating arrested protesters in New York to find actionable ties to antifa.
“They’re trying to manufacture a conspiracy case against antifascist groups by interrogating detainees and seeking out information, rather than focusing on white supremacist militants who are moving state to state without much law enforcement intervention,” German said.
Brian O’Hare, the president of the FBI Agents Association, and active-duty FBI special-agents group, declined to comment on the Trump-Wray relationship and praised Wray’s tenure. “Director Wray is committed to the truth and focused on the facts. He has led the Bureau through unprecedented challenges with a steady hand,” O’Hare said.
German added that Wray had the bureau’s “institutional interests as a top priority,” but noted that those interests hardly stand against Trump’s—at least when the FBI isn’t specifically investigating the president.
“If you talk to Black Lives Matter activists or Standing Rock water protectors or environmentalists, the FBI has certainly been aggressive in its suppressive investigations,” German said. “I imagine that could get worse.”