• Tue. Jun 25th, 2024

FBI Director Wray faces off with his harshest critics at heated congressional hearing

FBI Director Wray faces off with his harshest critics at heated congressional hearing


House Republicans unloaded a barrage of criticism directed toward FBI Director Christopher Wray Wednesday, outlining a litany of complaints while Wray testified before the House Judiciary Committee.

Chairman Jim Jordan opened the hearing launching into a wide array of attacks on the FBI. Those ranged from allegations the bureau allowed social media companies to suppress the Hunter Biden laptop story in 2020 to claims FBI whistleblowers have been retaliated against to the FBI’s handling of threats on school boards and a since-withdrawn memo from the bureau’s Richmond field office on extremism in the Catholic Church.

Republicans accused Wray of undermining public trust in the law enforcement agency, including the handling of the investigations into former President Donald Trump and the son of President Joe Biden, Hunter Biden.

“Are you protecting the Bidens?” asked Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican, after pressing Wray over allegations from an IRS whistleblower related to the Hunter Biden investigation.

“Absolutely not,” Wray responded. “The FBI does not, has no interest in protecting anyone politically.”

Gaetz and Wray got into a heated exchange after the Florida Republican alleged that the bureau has “the lowest level of trust in the FBI’s history.”

“People trusted the FBI more when J. Edgar Hoover was running the place than when you are, and the reason is because you don’t give straight answers,” Gaetz said.

“Respectfully congressman, in your home state of Florida, the number of people applying to come work for us and devote their lives working for us is over up over 100%,” Wray responded.

Gaetz shot back: “We’re deeply proud of them, and they deserve better than you.”

FBI Director Christopher Wray is seated to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

Wray defended the FBI broadly in the face of the GOP attacks, acknowledging there have been mistakes – such as abuses of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act process – but arguing that the bureau has taken appropriate steps to address those problems. In his opening remarks, Wray encouraged committee members to look at the “sheer breadth and impact of the work” the FBI does that “goes way beyond the one or two investigations that seem to capture all the headlines.”

But in multiple exchanges, Wray clashed with Republicans who accused the FBI – and Wray personally – of being biased against conservatives.

“The idea that I’m biased against conservatives seems somewhat insane to me, given my own personal background,” said Wray, a Republican who was appointed by Trump.

Jordan, an Ohio Republican, has made the FBI a central focus of his panel’s investigative work, and has set out to prove that the agency has been weaponized against conservatives – with Wray being a top target. The hearing comes as House Republicans have continued to defend Trump and accuse the DOJ and FBI of carrying out a two-tiered system of justice, with many of the former president’s fiercest allies sitting opposite of Wray on Wednesday.

Jordan said that he opposed funding the FBI with a new headquarters or reauthorizing FISA 702, which allows the government to obtain communications to track foreign terrorist threats. Jordan said that he hoped Democrats would “work with us in the appropriations process to stop the weaponization of the government against the American people and in this double standard that exists now in our justice system.”

Democrats responded by arguing that the hearing itself was entirely political and that Republicans were trying to protect Trump.

“For Republicans, this hearing is little more than performance art. It is an elaborate show designed with only two purposes in mind: to protect Donald Trump from the consequences of his actions, and to return him to the White House in the next election,” New York Rep. Jerry Nadler, the committee’s top Democrat, said Wednesday.

“House Republicans will attack the FBI for having had the audacity to treat Donald Trump like any other citizen. The strategy is simple, really. When in doubt, Chairman Jordan investigates the investigators. The FBI dared to hold Trump accountable, so Republicans must discredit them at all costs,” Nadler added.

Wray’s opening statement highlighted the bureau’s successes over the past year, including the arrest of more than “20,000 violent criminals and child predators,” the “well over 300 investigations targeting the leadership” of drug cartels that traffic fentanyl and other narcotics across the southern border, and the “thousands of active investigations we now have into the Chinese government’s efforts to steal our most precious secrets, rob our businesses of their ideas and innovation, and repress freedom of speech right here in the United States.”

Rep. Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, speaks during a hearing with FBI Director Christopher Wray.

The clashes between Republicans and Wray played out amid the looming expiration of FISA 702 authorities, which expire the end of the year unless Congress reauthorizes them. Multiple Republicans – and at least one Democrat – told Wray on Wednesday they would not reauthorize the surveillance tools without significant reforms.

Republicans raised numerous grievances during the hearing, dating all the way back to the FBI’s investigation into Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia during the 2016 election.

Several Republicans pointed to the findings of John Durham, the special counsel who probed the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane investigation. Wray called Durham’s findings, primarily that the FBI should have only launched a preliminary – not full – investigation into connections between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia during the 2016 election, “totally unacceptable.”

“I consider the conduct that was described in the Durham report as totally unacceptable and unrepresentative of what I see from the FBI every day and must never be allowed to happen again,” Wray said.

The Trump-related investigations were just one slice of the criticism Wray faced. Republicans also raised allegations that Catholic Americans were targeted by the FBI, and the FBI’s alleged role in censoring free speech was also a focal point.

The committee released a new report on Monday, obtained first by CNN, alleging the FBI participated in a flawed effort to stop Russian disinformation at the behest of a Ukrainian intelligence agency that instead ensnared authentic American accounts – even a verified Russian-language US State Department account.

The report was a key committee step in their investigation into whether the federal government played a role in censoring speech online, and comes as Republicans continue to attack the Biden administration’s work with social media platforms, which initially ramped up over intervention on stories about Hunter Biden’s laptop.

FBI Director Christopher Wray is sworn in prior to testifying before a House Judiciary Committee hearing.

In addition, Republicans lambasted Wray over a recent ruling from a federal judge in Louisiana who ordered several federal agencies and more than a dozen top Biden administration officials not to communicate with social media companies about taking down “content containing protected free speech” that’s posted on the platforms.

“The court ordered the White House, DOJ and FBI, among others, to immediately cease colluding with and coercing social media companies to suppress American speech, of course, conservative speech in particular,” Jordan said. “I find it stunning.”

Wray, however, pushed back forcefully on the allegations, saying: “We don’t ask social media companies to censor information or suppress information.”

GOP Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky grilled Wray about the pipe bomb found at the Democratic National Committee on January 6, 2021, while the attack at the US Capitol was ongoing, asking why the bureau has not been able to share more information about the incident or identify a suspect in the matter.

While Wray said he was limited in what he could share, as is practice for an ongoing criminal investigation, Massie lamented that it has been 900 days since the incident and shot back: “We can handle classified information and we fund your department and so you need to provide that.”

Wray revealed on Wednesday that the bureau has created a new unit to focus on threats against personnel after last year’s search at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.

Wray’s testimony Wednesday gave new insight into the effects of the threats against federal law enforcement following the search and Trump’s federal indictment in Florida several weeks ago.

“We did stand up a whole dedicated unit to focus on threats to FBI, individuals, FBI employees and FBI facilities because of the uptick that we saw over that time period,” Wray said.

In the wake of the search last August, the FBI said it was investigating an “unprecedented” number of threats against agents and FBI property.

Democrats knocked Republicans over criticisms of the FBI’s search of Trump’s Florida resort, walking Wray through the steps that had been taken to try to retrieve classified documents before the August 2022 search.

During questioning from Nadler, Wray denounced the notion that the search was a “raid” on the former president’s home. “I would not call it a raid – I would call the execution of a lawful search warrant,” Wray said, adding that the search followed “standard procedure.”

The FBI director noted, “There was no SWAT involvement” in the search.

Wray also emphasized that the search was conducted in a such a way that the agents did not draw undue attention that day by wearing plain clothes and waiting until the former president had left the property.

Asked about the various locations where classified information was found at Mar-a-Lago – which were detailed in special counsel Jack Smith’s indictment of the former president last month – Wray said: “I don’t want to be commenting on the pending case, but I will say that there are specific rules about where to store classified information and that those need to be stored in a SCIF, a secure, compartmentalized information facility, and in my experience, ballrooms, bathrooms and bedrooms are not SCIFs.”

This story and headline have been updated with additional developments.

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