Nearly two years ago, FBI Director Chris Wray set up an office tasked solely with stopping the type of Russian interference efforts that infected the 2016 campaign.
On Wednesday night, President Donald Trump undercut the whole operation in a matter of seconds.
Story Continued Below
In an ABC News interview, the president first proclaimed he would have no problem accepting dirt on his opponents from a foreign power, then said Wray was “wrong” to suggest the FBI needs to know about such offers.
The comments, according to interviews with nearly a dozen law enforcement veterans, have undone months of work, essentially inviting foreign spies to meddle with 2020 presidential campaigns and demoralizing the agents trying to stop them. And it has backed Wray into a corner, they added, putting him in a position where he might have to either publicly chastise the president and risk getting fired, or resign in protest.
America’s enemies will see Trump’s comments and likely “come out of the woodwork like never before to try to influence the president,” said longtime FBI veteran Frank Figliuzzi, who served as the bureau’s assistant director for counterintelligence until 2012. “And it’s going to be more difficult to defend against because they’ll try harder than ever to mask their attempts.”
Trump has broken all manner of traditional protocol during his presidency when it comes to law enforcement and the intelligence community. His calls early in his administration to launch investigations into his political opponents were widely panned by Justice Department veterans who deemed the Oval Office requests as out of line. But more recently, Trump has found an ally in William Barr, the new attorney general who has taken the president up on his demand for a wider examination into the origins of the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
With Trump’s latest comments, aired Wednesday night, the president has resurrected a question that special counsel Robert Mueller spent nearly two years investigating — is it collusion to accept damaging information on an opponent from foreign agents attempting to interfere in a U.S. election?
“It’s not an interference,” Trump told the anchor George Stephanopoulos, a former Bill Clinton White House communications director. “They have information, I think I’d take it.”
Trump described such offers as “opposition research” and said he’d call the FBI only “if I thought there was something wrong.”
Some linked Trump’s remarks to Mueller’s deliberation over whether his team could have charged anyone on the Trump campaign if they had obtained the promised hurtful information on Hillary Clinton from a Kremlin intermediate during a much-scrutinized Trump Tower meeting. Mueller’s report said he wasn’t sure the potential information had financial value, meaning it might not qualify as an illegal campaign contribution from a foreign entity. The report also raised questions about whether there was a free-speech right to receive the information.
“It’s turning the First Amendment into a suicide pact that allows our own government to be undermined,” said Rick Hasen, a professor at the University of California Irvine’s law school, who called the special counsel’s findings “a green light for foreign intervention in the 2020 election, and that was affirmed by what Trump said to ABC.”
Current and former Trump officials downplayed the president’s remarks as Trump being Trump. While the comments drive Democrats mad and consume the media, they matter to rank-and-file government workers only if they actually come come with direct orders, they argued.
“I think people take it in stride until he tries to operationalize it,” said a former Trump White House official.
Spokespersons at both the DOJ and FBI declined to comment on the president’s remarks.
Just three months after Wray assumed the top FBI post in August 2017, he told Congress that he had set up a “foreign influence” task force to stymie future election meddling efforts.
The team brings together counterintelligence, cyber and counterterrorism officials — nearly 40 in total, according to a New York Times story — and coordinates with all 56 FBI field offices. It also works with the Homeland Security Department, state and local governments, as well as the major social media companies that Russian agents used to spread disinformation and stage fake rallies meant to incite voter anger.
The breadth of the effort has to match the scale of the problem, Wray said at a White House briefing last August. “Make no mistake — the scope of this foreign influence threat is both broad and deep,” he said.
Wray also took his warnings to Capitol Hill last month, telling lawmakers that campaigns must be on the lookout for suspicious outreach efforts.
“I think my view is that if any public official or member of any campaign is contacted by any nation state or anybody acting on behalf of a nation state about influencing or interfering with our election, then that’s something that the FBI would want to know about,” Wray said.
The FBI’s work in recent years to combat foreign election interference has received consistent praise from lawmakers of all political leanings, as well as numerous Trump administration officials.
Barr called the task force a “very dynamic program” during a Senate hearing in May on Mueller’s final report, adding, “I’m very impressed with what they’re up to.” Vice President Mike Pence gave the efforts a shoutout at a cybersecurity conference in New York in the lead-up to the 2018 midterm election.
But law enforcement specialists said Trump has now made this work harder.
Frank Montoya, Jr., a former director of an FBI counterintelligence office from 2012 to 2014, said Trump’s mindset about foreign influence presents “real dangers” to U.S. national security.
“One, our adversaries will see it as an invitation to interfere in the next election on his behalf,” he said. “But worse is the open door Trump has enabled for all manner of influence operations to continue against U.S. interests.”
David Kris, a former Obama-era assistant attorney general for national security, argued that Trump’s latest comments essentially mark the second time he’s publicly asked for Russian help to win a presidential election. During the 2016 campaign, Trump memorably proclaimed that if Russia was “listening,” it should go after Clinton’s “missing” emails — a comment he later said was made in jest.
“U.S. law enforcement, intelligence and security officials will do what they can to protect the integrity of our democratic processes,” said Kris, founder of the intelligence consulting firm Culper Partners, “while being publicly contradicted and undermined by their boss.”
Other former law enforcement veterans said the president’s remarks will hurt morale inside the FBI and the other departments working on election security issues.
“I cannot tell you how profoundly troubling this is to the core of my professional experience,” said a former longtime national security official.
“It has to be demoralizing to some extent and confusing and, let’s face it, unprecedented, to have a commander in chief who has such a lack of fundamental understanding about the work the Justice Department and intelligence community do in this area,” added Greg Brower, the former top FBI liaison to Congress who served under Wray during his first months as director.
“To flat out say the FBI director is wrong on this or any other issue is, in and of itself, stunning” Brower added. “It’s tougher for the leadership, the appointees of the president, who know the president is wrong, who have to wonder about his fundamental lack of understanding about what those agencies are doing.”
Jim Baker, who served as the FBI’s general counsel under FBI Director James Comey, told POLITICO that the remarks could put Wray in a position where he might have to resign in protest if he can’t persuade the president to change his tune.
Wray needs to join Barr “to have a discussion with [Trump], and if they don’t get a sense of comfort then they’ll have some hard decisions to make,” Baker said. “I don’t think they should run for the exits right away, but they can’t just ignore this one. This is potentially encouraging criminal activity and undermining federal law.”
In the meantime, the message for the bureau’s rank and file is that everything should be business as usual, said David Laufman, a former top DOJ national security official who retired in 2018.
“Notice is certainly taken within the ranks of the FBI and the intelligence community when the president of the United States says things that, on their face, are utterly antithetical to the common mission to protect our national security,” said Laufman, who had a key role overseeing the early stages of the FBI’s Russia investigation before Mueller’s appointment.
“While off-the-cuff remarks made during an interview are not equivalent to executive orders,” he continued, “it seems to me very important for leadership at the FBI and in the intelligence community to reinforce with their agency personnel that nothing has changed in the agencies’ commitment to countering foreign influence operations.”
Marc Caputo contributed to this report.