FBI director stuck in the middle with ‘Obamagate’
FBI Director Christopher Wray is sitting in an increasingly hot seat as Republicans and the White House press forward with investigations into what President Trump is calling “Obamagate.”
Congressional Republicans are pressing Wray to provide more information after recently released FBI field notes showed officials debating how to handle the case against former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
The controversy over the notes contributed to Attorney General William Barr’s contentious decision to drop charges against Flynn, despite his guilty plea.
The president argues the charges against Flynn were trumped-up and that officials in the Obama administration leaked information about Flynn’s phone conversations with Russia’s former U.S. ambassador after learning Flynn’s identity in intelligence reports to hurt his incoming administration.
Trump and Republicans have also criticized the FBI in their public remarks, suggesting agency officials may have been biased against Flynn and Trump.
Democrats say Barr’s unprecedented decision to drop charges against Flynn after he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI was a political move that has undermined the Department of Justice.
Wray is the man in the middle who is charged with leading his embattled organization while reporting to a president deeply suspicious and critical of the FBI and to congressional Democrats with oversight over federal law enforcement.
Wray has a thin line to walk, seeking to protect his agency but not alienate the president.
Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.), who has called on Wray to testify to Congress, said the criticism that Wray is taking from some Republicans is “fair and warranted.”
But he also acknowledged Wray has an institution to uphold.
“I believe he wants to preserve and defend his institution, and we all feel it because it’s a critical one, but these actions belie that and it leads people to draw other conclusions,” Johnson told The Hill.
“The longer that this lingers, the more suspicion grows and the more he himself is brought into question, and I think that’s unfortunate.”
Republicans have torn into Wray in public.
“Where has Christopher Wray been in all this?” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) asked during a Fox News interview Tuesday, while calling Flynn a “patriot.”
“He should’ve gone to the FBI, he should’ve cleaned house, he should’ve made this all available, but he hasn’t done that. We need to restore the integrity and credibility of these agencies, and that is not the way to do that,” said Johnson, the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Johnson’s remarks closely echoed those of House Judiciary Committee ranking member Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a top ally of Trump’s who just two days before tweeted: “Where is Christopher Wray?”
The FBI declined to comment when asked about the GOP demands.
Flynn was fired by Trump in 2017 for misleading Vice President Pence about his conversations with then-Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak less than a month into the new administration. He pleaded guilty in December 2017 to lying to federal agents about the conversations he had with the Russian diplomat about the Obama administration’s sanctions on Moscow, before he sought to withdraw that plea.
The battle took another turn late last month when the government released the field notes in which one bureau agent asked in a handwritten note whether it was their goal to get Flynn “to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired.”
Trump allies and Flynn’s legal team said the notes showed Flynn was a victim of prosecutorial misconduct, and they have sought to cast blame on the Obama administration.
Republicans want to know how long Wray has known about these notes and if he could have released them earlier.
Trump’s claims of a bias against him at the FBI are nothing new.
An investigation led by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz was critical of former FBI Director James Comey and other officials for their handling of the Russia probe, but he did not determine a bias was apparent in their decision to open the investigation.
He did, however, determine there were multiple errors in the bureau’s process to obtain surveillance warrants. Wray and the FBI have accepted those findings and vowed to take steps to address them.
There have been some recent signs that Wray is not completely on the outs with Trump and Barr, who praised the FBI for its “relentless effort” to unlock the two iPhones belonging to Mohammed Alshamrani, the gunman who opened fire at the Pensacola Naval Base in December.
Yet it is clear there are tensions under the surface.
Wray has found himself a target for not seeking to root out what Trump sees as corruption within the top levels of the FBI.
Starting in late April and early May, following the release of the Flynn documents, Wray faced attacks from conservative allies of the president.
“Christopher Wray must go,” tweeted Dan Bongino, a conservative commentator, in late April.
Pressure has also increased with acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell’s move to declassify information surrounding the government’s early days of tracking Flynn’s contacts. On Tuesday, Grenell sent a declassified copy of the email that former national security adviser Susan Rice sent to herself detailing a Jan. 5, 2017, meeting with President Obama, Comey and other top officials.
Rice, Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) and others have called on Grenell to release the unredacted transcripts of all Kislyak-Flynn calls, arguing that the American people should be able to review the transcripts so they can judge Flynn’s conduct for themselves.
Amid the drip of documents being released, the spotlight has increasingly focused on Wray as questions swirl around whether he can weather the growing pressure.
While Trump has reportedly been encouraged by advisers not to fire Wray out of fear he could trigger a political firestorm so close to the presidential election, some have privately jested that the president doesn’t always adhere to such advice.