FBI director defends agents, bureau in hearing before House GOP critics
Washington — House Republicans clashed with FBI Director Chris Wray on Wednesday as the head of the bureau faced sharp questions from lawmakers who in recent years have ratcheted up accusations that the agency has been weaponized for political purposes.
Wray's appearance before the House Judiciary Committee — for a hearing the panel billed as focusing on "the politicization" of the FBI under Wray and Attorney General Merrick Garland — was his first since Republicans took control of the lower chamber and came as the FBI, and Justice Department more broadly, has emerged as a frequent target of Republicans. Former President Donald Trump nominated Wray to lead the FBI in 2017 after firing then-director Jim Comey.
The committee's Republican and Democratic members took their places along familiar battle lines throughout the hearing, offering competing views of the FBI.
GOP lawmakers accused the bureau of pursuing politically charged investigations to damage former President Donald Trump, the current frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, and retaliating against parents and whistleblowers. Their Democratic colleagues, meanwhile, largely rushed to the bureau's defense and said it is Trump who committed wrongdoing with his handling of sensitive government documents, conduct for which he is facing federal charges.
"The idea that I am biased against conservatives seems somewhat insane to me given my own personal background," Wray, a registered Republican, said in response to accusations he has used the FBI to target conservatives.
At the start of the hearing, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan provided a roadmap of the array of issues Republicans have with the FBI, among them its August 2022 court-authorized search of Mar-a-Lago, Trump's South Florida resort; the alleged retaliation against whistleblowers who spoke to congressional investigators; and purported efforts to suppress conservative viewpoints.
"The American people have lost faith in the FBI," Republican Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana said.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican, questioned whether the FBI was "protecting the Bidens," an assertion Wray forcefully rejected.
"Absolutely not. The FBI does not and has no interest in protecting anyone politically," the director said.
Democrats, meanwhile, accused their GOP colleagues of leveling attacks against the FBI for the benefit of Trump and attempting to reshift the blame for the former president's legal troubles.
"For them, 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 top Democrat on the Judiciary panel, said.
To further their claims that the FBI is bias against conservatives, Republicans repeatedly raised a July 4 preliminary injunction issued by a federal judge in Louisiana, which limited a number of top Biden administration officials and agencies from communicating with social media companies about "protected speech." The injunction stemmed from a case brought by the attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana, who alleged the Biden administration colluded with the platforms to censor conservative viewpoints about the COVID-19 pandemic and election integrity.
The Justice Department has asked a federal appeals court to pause the lower court order while it pursues an appeal.
"The FBI is not in the business of moderating content or causing any social media company to suppress or censor," Wray said.
The FBI chief told the committee the bureau's focus is on malign foreign disinformation by hostile actors who abuse social-media platforms.
To bolster their allegations that the FBI has acted with political motivations, Republicans have pointed to a recent report from a special counsel, John Durham, who examined the origins of the FBI's investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 presidential election.
Durham released the findings of his four-year-long investigation in May, concluding that the Justice Department and FBI "failed to uphold their important mission of strict fidelity to the law." Much of the information disclosed in Durham's report was revealed in a 2019 probe conducted by the Justice Department's inspector general. Durham pursued prosecutions of three people as a result of his investigation, two of whom were acquitted. The third, a former FBI lawyer, pleaded guilty.
Wray said the conduct described in the special counsel's report is "totally unacceptable and unrepresentative of what I see from the FBI every day, and must never be allowed to happen again."
During questions about a rise in threats to law enforcement after FBI agents executed the search warrant at Mar-a-Lago, including an attempted breach of a FBI field office in Cincinnati, Ohio, Wray lamented that it's not only officers who have been targeted, but their families.
"It's unfortunately part of a broader phenomenon that we have seen not just against the FBI, and this is important to add, but against law enforcement all across the country," Wray said, "not just against law enforcement professionals themselves which is appalling enough, but calling for attacks against their families, which is truly despicable."
In defense of FBI employees, Wray told lawmakers that their work extends beyond investigations that grab headlines — agents have arrested 20,000 violent criminals and child predators last year, and is involved in 300 investigations targeting the leadership of drug cartels, he said.
Asked about the suggestion from a small number of Republicans and Trump that the FBI be defunded, Wray called it "disastrous" and "ill-conceived."
"It would hurt the American people, neighborhoods and communities all across this country — the people we are protecting from cartels, violent criminals, gang members, predators, foreign and domestic terrorists, cyberattacks," he said, adding stripping the FBI of its funding would help "violent gangs and cartels, foreign terrorists, Chinese spies, hackers and so forth."
Looming over the hearing are funding for a new FBI headquarters and the end-of-year expiration of a warrantless surveillance program known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which requires reauthorization by Congress.
Jordan highlighted the resistance Wray is facing from congressional Republicans for re-upping the program, saying, "There are 204,000 reasons why Republicans will oppose FISA reauthorization in its current form," a reference to the 204,000 FBI searches of U.S. citizens' electronic data in 2022.
But the director attempted to allay their concerns, acknowledging that while there have been "failures" in the past regarding the FBI's searches conducted under Section 702, the bureau has implemented a number of reforms to mitigate abuses.