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White House counsel's office warned Trump not to fire Chris Wray

Attorneys have fretted that by firing the FBI director, Trump could be putting himself in jeopardy.
Attorney General William Barr And FBI Director Christopher Wray Announce Crime Reduction Initiative In Detroit
Christopher Wray has been director of the FBI since 2017. Bill Pugliano / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has come so close to firing FBI Director Christopher Wray in recent months that the White House counsel’s office has warned him not to do so because it could put him in potential legal jeopardy, according to a senior administration official with direct knowledge of the discussion and a U.S. official familiar with the discussion.

White House lawyers “strongly” advised Trump against firing another FBI director out of concern that doing so would risk creating the perception that a “loyalty test” was being imposed on a position that traditionally has maintained independence from the White House, according to the senior administration official.

The lawyers, led by White House counsel Pat Cipollone, specifically said that firing Wray could spark legal issues similar to those raised after Trump ousted James Comey as FBI director in 2017 in the midst of the Russia investigation, the officials said.

Their concern was that firing Wray could be seen as retaliation because the president has publicly pressured him to take specific actions on certain investigations — such as announcing a probe into President-elect Joe Biden’s son — and then expressed frustration that Wray has not followed his suggestions.

Trump’s firing of Comey, whom he’d asked to drop an investigation into his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, became a key part of the special counsel’s probe into whether he had obstructed justice.

As a result, the president’s legal team advised him against firing Wray, the officials said.

While Trump’s frustrations with Attorney General Bill Barr boiled over in recent days, and Barr resigned on Monday, the president’s advisers hope he’s been persuaded against ousting Wray. Multiple current and former senior administration officials said firing Wray does not appear imminent, but they also point out that the president could make such a decision on a whim at any time. Indeed officials said they are prepared for Trump to go on a firing spree before leaving office next month.

“I wouldn’t take anything off the table in coming weeks,” the senior administration official said of personnel changes, as well as presidential pardons. The official said to expect “some more fairly significant terminations in the national security or intelligence community.”

It’s unclear how Trump’s complaints that Wray hasn’t done anything to investigate Biden’s son Hunter might affect his job given the announcement last week that the FBI has already been conducting such an investigation since 2018. Trump had criticized Barr for not publicly disclosing the investigation before the election.

Trump also recently threatened to fire acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, according to two senior administration officials. The president blamed Wolf for the public statements from Christopher Krebs, the former head of the agency in charge of election security at the Homeland Security Department. Krebs has called the 2020 election “the most secure in American history.”

But some of the president’s advisers convinced him to leave Wolf in his job, and they believe — or at least hope — he won’t be fired.

The White House declined to comment on the president’s current thinking about firing members of his administration. “If the president doesn’t have confidence in someone he will let you know,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement. “We have no personnel announcements at this time.”

The likelihood of Trump firing top officials he’s been frustrated with or feels betrayed by is expected to increase over the holidays, the current and former officials said.

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CIA Director Gina Haspel was so convinced she might be fired that she was seen cleaning personal items out of her office at CIA headquarters last month after Trump ousted Defense Secretary Mark Esper, according to three former and current administration officials familiar with the matter.

Haspel’s job has been rumored to be in doubt in the weeks after the election, in part because of her reluctance to release classified documents related to Russian interference in the 2016 election, even when other intelligence community leaders like John Ratcliffe have pushed to release the information. But her position may now be more secure than it was even a few weeks ago, officials said, given that several Senate Republicans conveyed their support for her to the White House.

Still, officials said Trump could decide to fire Haspel anyway. “That hasn’t been put to rest,” one former senior administration official said.

When asked about Haspel packing up her personal items in her office, a CIA spokesperson said, “I stopped by Director Haspel’s office, and right there on her conference room table was one of her favorite mementos, a bowl with the London skyline.”