Job on the line, Wray threads needle on controversial issues

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FBI Director Christopher Wray speaks during a press conference at the Department of Justice, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, in Washington. The Justice Department is announcing charges against two men from Britain who joined the Islamic State and were part of a cell that beheaded Western hostages. (Jim Watson via AP)

WASHINGTON – Less than four years into his 10-year term, FBI Director Christopher Wray’s future in the job is decidedly uncertain heading into the presidential election. Oddly, he may be more likely to stay in office if the president who appointed him loses than if he wins.

President Donald Trump has been escalating his rhetoric against Wray, angry over his public statements on issues like antifa, voting fraud and Russian election interference. He has declined to give Wray a public vote of confidence. His eldest son tweeted last week that Wray is working to “protect corrupt Democrats.”

With Washington abuzz about his possible dismissal, Wray and the FBI have engaged in a delicate balancing act as they address hot-button issues. He has sought to defend the FBI’s independence and its integrity even as it puts him at odds with Trump and his allies. Yet the bureau has also tried to avoid confrontations where possible, making clear that it is striving to be responsive to Republican lawmakers on politically charged investigations.

The actions appear crafted with an eye toward helping Wray retain his job and preserving stability at an agency that has been riven by turbulence in the last four years and that is also determined to avoid becoming entangled in presidential politics as it did in 2016.

“My assumption is the way he has tried to thread the needle over the last several months is to not do anything to get himself fired while at the same time being as honest as he can possibly be with Congress and the American people,” said Gregory Brower, a former FBI official who served as the bureau’s director of congressional affairs until 2018.

The latest example came Tuesday on a matter Trump has made a top talking point in the final weeks of the campaign: the publication of emails purportedly from Joe Biden’s son, Hunter. Asked by a Trump ally in the Senate to weigh in on their authenticity, the FBI replied with an understated letter that did not dispute the national intelligence director's conclusion that the laptop on which they were found was not related to Russian disinformation, but did not address broader issues about its authenticity. It cited Justice Department policy in declining to confirm or deny investigations.

Even as Wray has angered Trump by contradicting him on some issues, the FBI has eagerly highlighted his cooperation on others critical for Republicans.

That includes pointing out his compliance with document demands from congressional Republicans looking to discredit the Trump-Russia investigation, and the FBI’s cooperation with a prosecutor whose investigation into the origins of that probe led to charges against a former FBI lawyer for altering an email.