WASHINGTON – A law enforcement news conference this week on the U.S. Capitol riot was notable not only for news that sedition charges were being contemplated but also because of who was not there: the highest-ranking leaders of the FBI and the Justice Department.
Since loyalists of President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol last week, neither FBI Director Chis Wray nor acting Attorney General Jeff Rosen has appeared in public or joined lower-level officials at news conferences or on calls updating the public on the case.
Their absence from the spotlight is striking given the gravity of an attack that has drawn round-the-clock law enforcement attention and bipartisan condemnation. It means that neither official, in a time of national crisis, has appeared on live TV to answer questions or try to reassure the public.
Top FBI and Justice Department leaders might be expected on the podium in more conventional times, but some former officials said they were sympathetic to Rosen and Wray in light of the president's volatile persona and the politically charged nature of this particular investigation.
“If I were in the position that Jeff Rosen is in right now, I would think about not how I could show off but how most effectively I could do the job and turn these dockets over to the next administration for prosecution,” said Stuart Gerson, who served as acting attorney general in the early weeks of President Bill Clinton's administration.
Both Rosen and Wray are known for their low-key style, and they could always become more visible in coming days or weeks. But for now the public faces of the Justice Department have largely been Michael Sherwin, the acting U.S. attorney in Washington, and Steven D'Antuono, the head of the FBI's Washington field office. They stood alone at a department news conference Tuesday to announce the creation of a specialized task force to examine sedition charges and to describe FBI warnings about the potential for more violence.
Officials with direct supervision of an investigation are routinely the featured speakers at news conferences, but they are often joined by higher-level department officials, particularly in matters of great public interest and especially for an event in Washington.
That did not happen Tuesday. When Rosen spoke, he did it through a nearly four-minute prerecorded video released at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday by the Justice Department. In it, he called the siege an “intolerable, shocking and tragic episode” and vowed to hold the rioters accountable.
Rosen has not once addressed Justice Department reporters since becoming acting attorney general late last month. His spokesman released three statements on his behalf about the rioting and the death of a Capitol police officer injured during the attack.
Beyond those statements, Justice Department spokesman Marc Raimondi said, the department has issued “significant" amounts of information through the offices that are running it.
“This is completely consistent with the way the Department releases information following incidents,” he said.
Wray issued a statement last week condemning the violence but has otherwise not spoken publicly. An FBI spokesman said Wray prefers to let the work speak for itself and has been deeply involved behind the scenes, sharing information with local law enforcement officials and giving multiple briefings to lawmakers, including the leadership members who make up the Gang of Four. He has also remained in close contact with senior officials responding to the riot and spent time in a specialized operations center at headquarters.
Still, the low public profile of the leaders contrasts with how previous episodes have been handled. One day after the 2016 rampage at a gay nightclub in Orlando, then-FBI Director James Comey updated reporters on the investigation in a televised briefing and revealed how the FBI had prior contacts with the gunman.
More recently, after authorities used pepper balls and smoke bombs to clear peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square near the White House, then-Attorney General William Barr held news conferences and discussed the Justice Department's decisions in interviews with reporters.
At those times, both Comey and Barr enjoyed high public profiles and White House support. Rosen, by contrast, is just weeks into a short-term job, and Wray has had to carefully navigate years of attacks from the president on both him and the FBI.
Gerson, who became acting attorney general after Barr left the department at the end of George H.W. Bush's administration, said he was visible during his brief span leading the department, which included catastrophes like the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
“I didn’t have any political problems. I was empowered to speak for the Department of Justice in the administration that I was in,” Gerson said. But, he said, "that was me, and that was then. And now it's Donald Trump.
“I can understand why the deputy attorney general and the director of the FBI want to refrain from putting themselves out in public when you have such an uncertain president right now," he added.
He said he was heartened by the business-as-usual approach to Tuesday's news conference and the message that many more charges were expected. David Gomez, a former FBI national security official in Seattle, said that even without the involvement of the top officials, the department has still communicated to the public that it takes the investigation seriously.
“They're probably just being careful to keep the politics out of it and make it more of a criminal case,” Gomez said. “When you inject the director of the FBI into the mix, even though that's the expectation as the head of the agency, this situation is so volatile that I think they probably said, ‘Discretion is the better part of valor,’ and let's just let” other officials handle it.