Over the weekend, President Trump took to Twitter to rant about the Federal Bureau of Investigation and its former director, James Comey. “After years of Comey,” the president typed, “with the phony and dishonest Clinton investigation (and MORE), running the FBI, its reputation is in Tatters – worst in history!” This was merely a continuation of the president’s attack on the credibility of the Department of Justice and follows the guilty plea of his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn—for lying to the FBI.
To talk about the inner workings of the FBI, and its interactions with presidents and politicians, I spoke by phone with Robert E. Anderson Jr., who served in the bureau for almost 22 years and, by the end of his career, was an executive assistant director in charge of numerous divisions. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed what’s so unique about Trump’s behavior, the differences in leadership styles between James Comey and Robert Mueller, and why the latter’s case might wrap up sooner than we think.
Isaac Chotiner: Can you describe how you feel when you see tweets like the ones Trump wrote over the weekend?
Robert E. Anderson Jr.: Yeah, I don’t think they are very helpful, especially coming from the president, when you have over 34,000 men and women in the FBI working tirelessly around the world, not just in the United States, to protect our country and the people in it. It’s not great for morale.
Did you ever feel political pressure like this?
No. Well, there is always pressure. I was in charge of Edward Snowden. I was in charge of the Petraeus case and other high-profile cases. There is always pressure when there are high-profile cases. But that’s what we do. That’s what the bureau does. I have never seen anything like this coming from the Oval Office or people around the president. I think this is fairly unique.
When you say there is always some pressure, what form does that take in a normal administration?
Just to try to get results on a case. I will give you the perfect example: Ed Snowden. Here you have a guy that stole probably the most classified data, if not in the history of our country then probably one of the most infamous in the history of our country. At the beginning of those cases there are a lot of unknowns, so trying to get to the bottom of what was taken, how it is going to affect the government and intelligence organizations, you are constantly briefing the Senate, the Congress, the White House, the attorney general of the United States, daily, so there is pressure to get to a resolution in those types of cases. The type of pressure we are seeing now from the Oval Office since Jim Comey’s firing is kind of unprecedented. I have never seen it.
Do you have some sense of how people still at the FBI think Christopher Wray’s tenure is going?
I don’t, but I don’t think it is going badly, or I would hear about it. I don’t know him. I have never met him in my life, which is pretty unusual for how long I was in the organization. But I don’t hear any bad things.
Mueller reportedly removed an agent, Peter Strzok, from his team for exchanging texts with a colleague that spoke negatively of Trump. I wasn’t aware that doing this in private could get agents in trouble. What did you make of this decision?
FBI agents are no different than any other American. They have their own political and economic beliefs. They can vote for whoever they want. A lot of the rules and regulations in and around the bureau is that you really can’t be expressing that on or in the bureau systems, especially when you are on work hours.
I know Pete Strzok very well. He worked for me in many positions over the years. He is probably one of the best counterintelligence agents still in the organization currently. Having said all that though, Bob Mueller has the responsibility to make sure that his investigation is transparent and to make sure that nobody thinks there is a potential conflict within it. So it doesn’t surprise me that he removed him from that investigation to make sure it appeared on its face that there weren’t any conflicts.
If Mueller’s investigation is impeded in some way, or he is fired, or some crazy chain of events all of us have been forced to consider, where do you think that would leave the FBI in terms of its place, and its morale? Is this something people are thinking about?
I don’t think it is anything anybody is thinking about. I honestly would be immensely surprised if all of that happened, especially with where we are now with this whole thing. I mean, if something like that did happen, I am sure it would upset people and make people worried about the future. I just don’t necessarily think that is something we are going to see happen.
I also don’t think that the Mueller investigation is going to [take] years. He is moving very quickly in the direction he needs to go, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it was done sooner rather than later.
Is there some specific development that gives you that sense?
No, just knowing him. I worked for him for the entire time he was the director and have been around him a lot. I think he has one of the best teams ever put together. I know most of the people there, and I think he is moving very quickly off the initial predication of that case, which is collusion with a foreign power. I think he has surprised people about how fast he has gotten to where he is right now, and I think that is going to help. You know what I mean? In other words, when he is done, he is either going to say there is or there isn’t.
I don’t think Manfaort’s trial is starting for months, but you seem to be saying the investigation could still get wrapped up.
I think each one of those are going to be kind of independent. But I don’t think you are going to see in any way this thing slow down at all. I have worked with him and for him for so long on some of these cases that I know how he thinks.
Can he do an interview with Slate?
I think I will let him do what he is doing right now.
How is his investigation different from a normal big FBI investigation? Is it just bigger?
The difference is that he has full authority and doesn’t need to go back to any United States attorney or the DOJ to get permission to acquire certain types of search and information techniques. The FBI, outside of any case like this, has certain approval chains you have to go through to get certain information, whether it is technical or written. So he can move much quicker that way.
And he was also allowed to pick, from basically anywhere in the country, different United States attorneys to come work underneath him. That’s usually not the case. Usually there is one special prosecutor and a lot of junior attorneys. Everyone he has with him is pretty much an expert in what they do. And he has put together a team of criminal, counterintelligence, white-collar crime, and other prosecutors, and they can all look at the different parts of the investigation holistically and give him a clear picture of it.
You worked for both Mueller and Comey. Can you tell me a difference and a similarity in their leadership styles?
Yeah I actually worked for three directors: Louis Freeh and Bob Mueller and Jim Comey. Bob Mueller is a much more no-nonsense guy. He is very task-oriented and driven. Results driven. He is very much that way. Jim Comey is a great leader, but he is much more laid-back, you know what I mean?
I follow him on Twitter so I sense that.
He is much more laid-back. He very much listens and likes to weigh information and make a decision. Bob Mueller is very much a prosecutor. He wants you to come in and know the facts and if you don’t know, then don’t guess, because he will take your head off. He is just a very regimented leader. Both great men; different leadership styles.