Firing FBI Director James Comey was arguably the first big mistake of Donald Trump’s presidency (he’d go on to have more). It was such an obvious misstep that Trump consigliere Steve Bannon called it “the biggest mistake in modern political history.” Comey had been investigating foreign interference in the 2016 election as well as ties between Russian oligarchs and the Trump campaign. Trump literally admitted to firing Comey because of “the Russian thing,” which was textbook obstruction of justice, thereby triggering his first impeachment (he’d go on to have more).
Somewhat lost in the shuffle of Trump’s brazenly authoritarian attempt to subvert the rule of law was the reality that Comey was a terrible FBI director who absolutely should have been run out of town on a rail. Appointed to a 10-year term in 2013, Comey is probably one of the biggest mistakes President Barack Obama has made in his entire life, and, I believe, the worst hire of his presidency. Comey was all too eager to insert himself into the political fray: announcing in August of 2015 that he was investigating presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server, announcing in July 2016 that he was closing that investigation, then announcing in October 2016, 11 days before the presidential election, that he was reopening the investigation, and then in November 2016, literally two days before the election, announcing that he found nothing—again.
Now we’re learning that Comey’s botching of the e-mail investigation probably wasn’t his biggest failure at the FBI. A report from Inspector General Michael Horowitz released in July details the utter failure of Comey’s agency to investigate charges into former US gymnastics doctor and serial child sexual abuser Larry Nassar. Four of the gymnasts victimized by Nassar testified before Congress this week and explained how their complaints about abuse and molestation were dismissed by the Indianapolis field office in 2015 and 2016. (Indianapolis is where Olympians traditionally train.) Comey was not the person interviewing the individual athletes, but, as director, the FBI’s disgusting failure to protect women and girls from a serial child sex abuser rests with him. If he had spent less time talking about Clinton’s damn e-mails, perhaps he could have checked in with the investigation in Indianapolis.
Which brings us to the man who replaced Comey, current FBI director Christopher Wray. After the US gymnasts testified to their abuse and neglect at the hands of the FBI, Wray testified that the FBI’s handling of their complaints was “totally unacceptable.” He also noted that the supervisory agent for the Indianapolis office had been fired two weeks ago.
Nasser pleaded guilty to seven counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct with minors in November 2017, yet Wray only got around to firing the guy who ignored allegations from victims two weeks ago.
If this was the first instance of Wray’s failure to protect vulnerable people, one might be inclined to give him a pass. But there is a pattern here of Wray refusing to pursue the powerful on behalf of women and people of color. On the evening of January 6, as some 800 domestic insurrectionists left the scene of their putsch, Wray’s FBI just let them go. It didn’t round up the people who stormed the Capitol, as they filed out of the building; instead, it let them leave and blend back in with the rest of society. Only days later—when I can only imagine Wray was surprised to learn that Americans expected justice—did the FBI begin searching and asking the public for “tips” on the whereabouts of terrorists they let walk away.
Moreover, we still don’t know what the FBI knew about the plans to attack the Capitol and what, if anything, it did to stop it. Wray showed up to Congress in March to warn of “right-wing extremism” and “domestic terrorism,” but it’s unclear what he did to stop it during the previous administration, when those extremists were encouraged and emboldened by Trump.
Meanwhile, Wray has straight-up refused to answer Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s written questions asking him to explain the shoddiness of his investigation into alleged attempted rapist Brett Kavanaugh. Information surfaced in March that the FBI received some 4,500 tips about Kavanaugh’s alleged misconduct and, as far as we know, the agency has followed up on only 10 of them. Wray, a Republican who is a member of the Federalist Society, was acquainted with Kavanaugh back when they were both in law school. The only people less interested in investigating Kavanaugh’s conduct than Wray were PJ, Tobin, and Squee.
Can anybody explain to me why Wray still has his job? The FBI director is appointed to a 10-year term—a practice that was put in place to avoid the appearance of political patronage in federal law enforcement—but the director still serves at the pleasure of the president. That Trump had the authority to fire Comey was never in question; the issue was that Trump chose to fire him for a corrupt reason (notwithstanding a report drafted by Trump enabler Rod Rosenstein to justify Comey’s dismissal). If Trump can fire the FBI director for disloyalty, then surely President Joe Biden can fire Trump’s handpicked replacement for repeated incompetence. Indeed, Trump likely planned to fire Wray had he won reelection (which, for the trillionth time, he did not).
Biden decided to keep Wray for reasons that have yet to be fully explained or interrogated. I can appreciate that Biden wanted to avoid the appearance of Trumpism, which the both-sides media would clearly have tagged him with if he had fired the FBI director. I can appreciate that, in a functional republic, the director of the chief federal law enforcement agency should not be a political appointee who changes with each new administration. But, at some point, such optical and institutional concerns must give way to basic governmental accountability.
Like Comey, Wray simply does not appear to be good at his job. Like Comey, Wray appears to have clear political motivations when it comes to whom he investigates and how much investigation he’s willing to do. Unlike Comey, Wray does a pretty good job of acting like every failure of his agency is somebody else’s fault, and like his hands are perpetually tied, preventing him from doing more. There are very good, nonpolitical reasons for thanking Wray for his service and then hiring somebody who is going to go to the FBI and clean house—something Wray is unable or unwilling to do.
But, while we’re here, there are good political and optical reasons for firing Wray too. It’s not acceptable for the person refusing to investigate a Supreme Court justice to be one of his law school buddies. It’s not acceptable to have the chief law enforcement officer be a member of a lawless legal society that advocates sending out vigilantes to hunt abortion providers. It’s not acceptable for one of the people who is supposed to protect us from the next coup attempt to have been appointed by the guy planning the next coup. Even if I believed Wray was trying his best (and I don’t), he would still be part of the cabal of Republicans who have brought this country to the brink of ruin.
Surely, a reformer could be found who would not only investigate the powerful but also bring the FBI into a progressive version of the 21st century. Republicans (Robert Mueller, Comey, and Wray) have run the FBI for the past 20 years and have all been resistant to the modern “progressive prosecutor” trends in law enforcement. The FBI’s institutional history is drenched in jackboot overreach, anti-Black corruption, and disrespect of constitutional rights. As the Nassar investigation shows, the agency is infused with men who have anachronistic views on what justice is and who deserves to have any of it.
Does anybody reasonably think Wray is the right director to lead the FBI into a new era? Does President Biden honestly think Wray is the best person available in this role? At the risk of saying in public what the Republican-controlled FBI probably already has me on tape saying to my snitch Alexa: Fire Chris Wray. There’s no good reason for him to still have this job.