WASHINGTON – One year after President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, agents say they have less confidence in the ethics and vision of the bureau’s new leadership, according to internal survey data.
The survey results further undercut one of the explanations that Trump and his aides gave for firing Comey and replacing him with Christopher Wray. Trump said the FBI was in turmoil and agents had lost confidence in Comey.
The internal data suggest that Trump either misread those views or mischaracterized them. As a whole, morale at the FBI remains high, despite a barrage of attacks by the president and his allies. Agents said they are proud to work at the FBI, believe in the mission, look forward to going to work and believe their job makes a difference. Scores in those areas remained steady.
By themselves, the numbers do not explain the decline in leadership scores. Wray was largely unknown to most agents when he came into office during one of the most tumultuous times in FBI history. He brought with him a fresh team and a more low-key style than his predecessor. He has also opted not to spar publicly with Trump, even as the president has attacked the bureau and accused agents of being part of a “witch hunt” against him.
Neither the overall positive results nor the declining leadership scores back up Trump’s version of events, in which he brought in Wray to stabilize a wobbly, discredited agency.
The figures were obtained through a public records request by the blog Lawfare, which conducted its own analysis and shared the raw data with the New York Times.
“Director Wray is a strong and thoughtful leader and, at the time of the survey, was early in his tenure,” said Jacqueline Maguire, an FBI spokeswoman. “He continues to visit field offices to personally introduce himself to the men and women of the FBI, and has been extremely well received. The FBI workforce remains proud of its work, and is highly motivated by our vital mission to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution of the United States.”
FBI officials use the survey, collected around March each year, to identify problem areas. The survey includes dozens of questions about every aspect of bureau life, and the results are scored on a scale of 5. Anything above 3.81 is considered successful.
Scores this year fell to below that threshold on key questions related to FBI leadership. Agents were asked whether they were inspired by the director’s vision and whether they believe his senior leadership team maintained high standards of integrity.
Agents in the field gave Wray a 3.58 for his leadership vision, a decline of two-thirds of a point. And they gave Wray and his leadership team a 3.49 on the ethics question, a half-point decline. A third question, asking whether agents had a high level of respect for senior FBI executives, also resulted in lower scores, though the decline was not as steep as the other two.
The scores for Wray’s team still qualify as positive, but what was recently an area of strength for the FBI — executive leadership — is now seen as an area for improvement.
In his short tenure, Wray has tried to navigate a perilous path, serving a president whose conduct is under FBI scrutiny and who criticizes the bureau as part of a “deep state” that is working against him. As agents and prosecutors investigate Russian election interference and whether Trump’s associates were involved, Wray has generally opted not to directly take on Trump.
Wray’s leadership scores were particularly low among employees of the cyber and counterintelligence units and the general counsel’s office — three divisions deeply involved in the investigations into Russian election interference.
Wray and Comey have markedly different leadership styles. Comey used his position to be a public voice for the FBI and law enforcement nationwide. And he clashed with Justice Department officials who saw him as too eager to seize the spotlight. His willingness to go it alone ultimately hurt the FBI during the 2016 election, when he spoke unusually publicly about an investigation into Hillary Clinton and her e-mail practices. Internal investigators have labeled him “insubordinate” for those actions.
Wray, a former senior prosecutor in George W. Bush’s administration, has shunned the limelight. “Talk is cheap; the work you do is what will endure,” he said in a message to FBI employees earlier this year.
He has also tangled with Republicans in Congress who have demanded to see records related to the special counsel investigation. He has acquiesced to some requests but refused others, leading to a tense moment last month on Capitol Hill. “Certainly, when I was minding my own business in private practice in Atlanta, I didn’t think I was going to be spending the first 10 months of my job staring down the barrel of a contempt citation,” he told lawmakers.