FBI director rejects Trump’s vow to investigate political rivals

Reacting for the first time to former President Donald Trump’s vow to order the Justice Department to investigate his political opponents, FBI Director Christopher Wray said he would not allow his agents to conduct any investigation that doesn’t comply with “our rules, our procedures, our best practices, our core values.”

In an interview Tuesday with NBC News’ Lester Holt at FBI headquarters, Wray said that, as long as he is FBI director, he is “going to make sure … we do the right thing in the right way."

"And that means following the law, following our rules, staying faithful to our core values, enforcing the law without fear or favor," he added.

FBI rules prohibit agents from opening an investigation without evidence of criminality, and Justice Department rules say agents may never make a decision regarding an investigation or prosecution for the purpose of giving an advantage or disadvantage to any candidate or political party. 

Wray was appointed by Trump to a 10-year term in 2017. Asked if he would want to continue serving as FBI director if Trump was re-elected, Wray responded, “I’m enjoying doing this job. I love the people, the men and women of the FBI, who are some of the finest people I’ve ever had a chance to work with. And as long as I think I can continue doing that in a way that adheres to all those rules and norms, it’s what I’d like to keep doing.”

Trump repeatedly publicly criticized Wray before he left office in 2021, and he has blasted the FBI ever since, especially for its role in the 2022 search of his Mar-a-Lago home for classified documents. So it’s widely believed Trump would seek to remove Wray and appoint a new director if he was elected.

In response to a question, Wray also broke with Trump over the former president’s characterization of Jan. 6 defendants as “hostages.”

“I see the defendants in the Jan. 6 cases as criminal defendants who are being charged with federal crimes, and are in front of independent courts as part of our legal system,” Wray said. “In our country, there are all sorts of people who are upset and angry about all sorts of things, about all sorts of people. But there is a right way under the First Amendment to express how upset you are. And violence — violence against law enforcement, destruction of federal property — is not it.”

In the wide-ranging interview, Wray also discussed an array of national security threats, including from terrorism, cyberattacks, and the Chinese-owned social media platform TikTok.

Asked about protests and violence on college campuses over the Israel-Hamas war, he said the FBI is “keenly focused on working with state and local law enforcement, campus law enforcement, others to try to make sure that we stay ahead” of the threat of antisemitic violence” and prevent violence against the Jewish community.”

He said the FBI doesn’t monitor protests, but it does “share intelligence about specific threats of violence with campuses, with state and local law enforcement.”

Wray reiterated comments he has made recently underscoring that the threat from terrorism since Oct. 7 is as high as it has been in some time, especially from lone actors or small groups radicalized at home by the war. But he said there are also elevated fears about a coordinated terror attack in a public place, a prospect that for the last decade has been seen by intelligence officials as extremely remote.

“We are increasingly concerned [about] the potential for some kind of coordinated attack here in the homeland, which may be not that different from what you saw against the concert hall in Russia a few weeks ago from ISIS-K,” he said.

Asked to describe the real world national security threat from TikTok, as Congress moves toward passing a bill requiring its Chinese owner to sell the platform, Wray was emphatic.

He said national security officials are concerned that TikTok provides Chinese intelligence services “the ability to collect the data, the ability to control the recommendation algorithm, which means the ability to push CCP narratives, pro-CCP narratives, downplay criticism of the Chinese government, in effect, enlist millions of users as unwitting advocates of CCP propaganda.”

He added that the Chinese government also has “the ability to control the software, which gives the opportunity to technically compromise the devices, the phones, millions and millions of phones.”

Asked what he would say to the millions of people in the United States who regularly use TikTok for business or pleasure and simply don’t care about the perceived risks, Wray said, “My message is, you need to take into account who the Chinese government is, who the Chinese Communist Party is.”

Wray also restated his assessments that China, Russia and Iran may seek to interfere in the upcoming election, and that all three countries continue to conduct cyber espionage and offensive cyber operations against the United States. China, he said, is positioning itself to be able to knock out critical infrastructure in the event the U.S. seeks to defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion.

Chinese cyber bombs planted on critical infrastructure, he said, “would allow them to induce panic or break America’s will to resist in something like, let’s say, an effort by the Chinese government to move on Taiwan.”

Wray lamented the uptick in threats of violence against public officials, including FBI agents.

“Certainly we’ve seen over the last few years an increase in threats against FBI personnel and FBI facilities,” he said. “That’s unacceptable. And, you know, frankly, despicable. But it’s part of a broader phenomenon of threats and violence against law enforcement, public officials. Anytime you start talking about threatening people just for doing their jobs, it is really outrageous."

"Having a badge shouldn’t make you a target," he added.

Asked what he thinks is driving the threats, Wray said, “There’s a broad phenomenon right now of people across the spectrum across the country who, when they’re upset about something, have chosen to use violence as a way to manifest that. And that’s incredibly dangerous and problematic."

He added that he believes there is another factor fueling the threats: that some Americans don’t view an FBI investigation, a trial or a court case as fair or legitimate unless the result was "what they wanted."

"That can’t be the standard of fairness, objectivity and legitimacy, or we’re in a hell of a pickle," Wray said.