WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump and his advisers have repeatedly discussed whether to fire FBI Director Christopher Wray after Election Day - a scenario that also could imperil the tenure of Attorney General William Barr as the president grows increasingly frustrated that federal law enforcement has not delivered his campaign the kind of last-minute boost that the FBI provided in 2016, according to people familiar with the matter.
The conversations among the president and senior aides stem in part from their disappointment that Wray in particular but Barr as well have not done what Trump had hoped - indicate that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, his son Hunter Biden, or other Biden associates are under investigation, these people say. Like others, they spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose internal discussions.
In the campaign’s closing weeks, the president has intensified public calls for jailing his challenger, much as he did for Hillary Clinton, his opponent in 2016. Trump has called Biden a “criminal” without articulating what laws he believes the former vice president has broken.
People familiar with the discussions say that Trump wants official action similar to the announcement made 11 days before the last presidential election by then-FBI Director James Comey, who informed Congress he had reopened an investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state after potential new evidence had been discovered.
Trump emphasized the point in an interview Tuesday with Fox News, saying “we’ve got to get the attorney general to act” and that Barr should do so “fast.” The president was alluding to information about Hunter Biden recently touted by Trump’s private lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and based on the contents of a laptop computer purportedly belonging to the former vice president’s son.
“This is major corruption,” Trump added, “and this has to be known about before the election.”
The White House does not speculate on personnel matters, said Judd Deere, a spokesman. “If the president doesn’t have confidence in someone he will let you know,” Deere said.
An FBI spokesman declined to comment.
Polling data show Comey’s late-October announcement four years ago cut significantly into Clinton’s lead over Trump. Yet while Trump may be hoping for a similar surprise from within his administration now, senior FBI officials are wary of repeating moves that were sharply criticized as unfair and inappropriate.
In a letter sent Tuesday night to Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., chairman of the Senate Homeland Security committee, an FBI official sought to dodge questions posed by Johnson about the bureau’s knowledge of Hunter Biden’s purported laptop.
The FBI has “nothing to add” to a statement made by Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, who earlier this week dismissed suspicions that the Biden laptop was the product of a Russian disinformation campaign, the letter said. Ratcliffe told Fox Business Channel on Monday that the U.S. government has no intelligence to support such claims.
By not disputing accusations leveled by Democrats and some former intelligence officials that the laptop’s late-season reveal could be another form of foreign election interference, the FBI gave tacit support to the idea that the emails in question are genuine. But the bureau’s letter to Johnson was not that explicit, noting the criticism leveled by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz over Comey’s actions in 2016.
The FBI “can neither confirm nor deny the existence of any ongoing investigation or persons or entities under investigation, including to Members of Congress,” Tuesday’s letter from Assistant Director Jill Tyson said. “As the Inspector General firmly reminded the Department and the FBI in recent years, this policy is designed to preserve the integrity of all Justice Department investigations and the Department’s ability to effectively administer justice without political or other undue outside influences.”
The letter marked the latest salvo in an increasingly fraught relationship between the president, the FBI and senior Justice Department officials.
Trump considers Wray one of his worst personnel picks, according to people familiar with the matter. White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows also has sharply criticized Wray in internal discussions, as has another top Trump adviser, Dan Scavino, these people said.
Meadows has expressed frustration that Wray will not declassify more documents relevant to the FBI’s 2016 probe of Russia’s election interference, though federal law enforcement officials have not been told specifically what documents Meadows wants, according to people familiar with the matter.
Trump has publicly and privately vented about what he sees as Wray’s lackluster statements about the Russia investigation, antifa and voter fraud.
The attorney general has been drawn into some of those disputes as the president has complained that a hoped-for report from Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham, who is scrutinizing the Russia investigation’s origins, is not expected to surface before Election Day.
The president has stopped praising Barr and instead strikes a more critical tone toward him. Trump declined to answer a Newsmax reporter recently when asked if Barr would be kept around for a second term.
Trump was so focused on the Durham report that he would turn up the television volume when segments would air about it, people around him said. Trump has told allies that he once believed Barr would deliver “scalps” in the form of Durham’s findings, according to an adviser who recently spoke to Trump about it. “But they aren’t doing s---,” the president said, according to this person.
Some administration officials have grown concerned that Barr could become a casualty of the White House’s desire to remove Wray after the election. But people familiar with the discussions caution there are still many variables that could affect or alter the president’s thinking, most importantly how America votes, and whether Republicans remain in charge of the Senate. Trump often complains about members of his Cabinet and contemplates dismissing them, without doing so. And Trump’s decision to fire Comey in early 2017 only fueled further problems for the president.
Conservative allies of the president have escalated their campaign against Wray on television and through social media, with some calling for him to be fired. Wray has largely stayed away from meetings with the president, officials said.
But throughout Wray’s tumultuous tenure under Trump, Barr often has acted as the FBI director’s ally and a shield, and it’s not clear that the president would act on his displeasure with Wray as long as Barr is still the attorney general. Current and former law enforcement officials worry that firing Wray so early into his 10-year term would be harmful to the FBI and further erode its political independence, after Comey’s stint lasted less than four years.
Brian O’Hare, president of the FBI Agents Association, said Wray has faced “unprecedented challenges” over the past three years and has sought to preserve the bureau’s impartiality and integrity.
“Director Wray,” O’Hare said, “is committed to the truth and focused on the facts.”