Donald Trump may have a tough time definitively saying so, but FBI Director Christopher Wray adamantly insists that Russian interference is no mere theory. Not only did Russian intelligence mount a large effort to warp the 2016 election, they’re back at it again, Wray told a security conference in Aspen yesterday. But Russia isn’t the only malicious intel threat facing the US, and it’s not even the worst.
But it’s still bad enough. Thus far, Russia’s efforts have been limited to “malign influence” campaigns to sow divisions, although they might go to “the next level … at a moment’s notice,” Wray warned:
As Pres. Trump continues to "clarify" his views on whether Russia launched an assault on the 2016 election, FBI Director Chris Wray made his own views clear: "Russia attempted to interfere in the last election." https://t.co/pAlGKbt2Kw pic.twitter.com/i10XWQ8ZeU
— ABC News (@ABC) July 19, 2018
Until last night’s CBS interview, that put Wray at odds with his boss. It wouldn’t be the first time either, as Trump has continued to blast the FBI during Wray’s tenure as director, although not Wray himself personally. NBC’s Lester Holt, serving as moderator for the Aspen Security Forum, asked Wray whether he’d been tempted to walk off the job. Wray pointedly didn’t issue a denial:
When asked if he had threatened to resign, Wray did not explicitly confirm that he had done so.
“There have also been stories that you threatened to resign. Have you ever hit a point on that issue of sources and methods or anything else when you said, this is a line?” Holt asked Wray.
“I’m a low-key, understated guy, but that should not be mistaken for what my spine is made out of. I’ll just leave it at that,” Wray answered. …
Wray said he has a professional relationship with Trump regardless of the criticism his agency has come under. But, he said, he is often told by strangers: “I just want you to know, we’re all praying for you.”
Wray’s not likely to make the boss any happier with his assessment of Robert Mueller. “I do not believe special counsel Mueller is on a witch hunt,” he told Holt later in the same discussion on Russia, adding that he knows Mueller personally as “a straight shooter.” Wray was careful not to comment on the scope of the probe, which remains classified, but emphasized Mueller’s professionalism when asked whether Mueller had “run amok” with the investigation.
The most important part of Wray’s presentation has nothing to do with Russia, though. While confirming that the FBI and the US intel communities stand by their assessments on Russian influence campaigns past and present, Wray warned that those aren’t the biggest intel threats on the radar. The threat from China comprises a “whole state effort,” espionage aimed at public and private sector targets, intending to cripple the US through theft of our innovation:
“From a counter-intelligence perspective, China represents the broadest and most challenging threat we face as a country,” Wray said during the Aspen Security Forum in Aspen, Colo. “It is a whole state effort.”
Speaking to moderator and NBC News anchor Lester Holt, Wray said his federal agents have found traces of China’s pervasive economic espionage in all 50 states.
“It covers everything from corn seeds in Iowa to wind turbines in Massachusetts,” he said.
This would explain, or at least justify, Trump’s decision to get tough on trade with China. Trump wants to close off pathways for China’s CM2025 project, at least those that rely on intellectual-property theft through industrial espionage and regulatory extortion in China itself. Unfortunately, that effort has been diluted somewhat by Trump’s decision to launch trade actions against other US partners, including allies like the EU and Canada. An effort to challenge China that included those partners would be much more effective. Given the threat that Wray describes, it would make more sense to shift gears and focus our trade efforts on China exclusively.