FBI Director Chris Wray defends the ‘real FBI’ against criticism from House Republicans
WASHINGTON (AP) — FBI Director Chris Wray defended the “real FBI” during a contentious congressional hearing Wednesday, dismissing a litany of grievances from Republicans who are harshly critical of the bureau, threatening to defund some operations and claiming the Justice Department is unfair to political conservatives.
Wray refused to engage in specific questions about ongoing federal investigations, including those involving former President Donald Trump and Hunter Biden. The son of President Joe Biden recently reached an agreement to plead guilty to misdemeanor federal tax charges; Republicans have derided that as a sweetheart deal.
In testy exchanges with Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee, Wray rejected the GOP assertion that the bureau was favoring the Biden family and said the notion that the bureau was involved the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol was “ludicrous.”
“The work the men and women of the FBI do to protect the American people goes way beyond one or two investigations that seem to capture all the headlines,” Wray said in his opening remarks.
The director spelled out the bureau’s crime-fighting work breaking up drug cartels, taking some 60 suspected criminals off the streets each day and protecting Americans from “a staggering array of threats.”
He said, “That is the real FBI.”
It’s the latest display of the new normal on Capitol Hill, where Republicans who have long billed themselves as the champions of police and “law and order” are deeply at odds with federal law enforcement and the FBI, accusing the bureau of bias dating to investigations of Trump when he was president.
This new dynamic has forced Democrats into a position of defending these law enforcement agencies they have long criticized.
The committee chairman, Republican Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, said he is trying to stop what Republicans call the “weaponization” of the federal justice system, which they say is tilted against conservatives, including Trump and his allies.
Jordan opened the hearing reciting a federal judge’s recent ruling against the government’s efforts to halt misinformation on social media before listing other grievances against the FBI over its treatment of conservatives.
But the top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, said the hearing was “little more than performance art” by the Republicans who are undertaking what he called baseless investigations too far-fetched to be true.
During one tense exchange with Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., Wray noted that in Florida, the number of FBI applicants is up by more than 100 percent.
“We’re deeply proud of them, and they deserve better than you,” Gaetz said.
Wray became animated at one point by the suggestion from Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., that the FBI would have been involved in suppressing a theory that the coronavirus pandemic originated via a leak from a laboratory in China rather than a transfer from animals to humans.
“The idea that the FBI would somehow be involved in suppressing references to a lab leak theory is somewhat absurd when you consider the fact that the FBI was the only — the only — agency in the entire intelligence community to reach the assessment that it was more likely than not that was the explanation of the pandemic,” Wray said, pointing with his index finger for emphasis.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said she thought it was “actually sad that the majority is engaging conspiracy theories in an effort to discredit one of the premier law enforcement agencies in the United States.”
Jordan has been laying the groundwork for Wray’s appearance since House Republicans took the majority in January.
Republicans have held hearings with former FBI agents, Twitter executives and federal officials to make the case that the FBI has been corruptly using its powers against Trump and the right. The GOP has formed a special committee on “weaponization” of government, also led by Jordan, to investigate abuse.
Along with GOP leaders of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee, the panels opened a joint investigation into the Hunter Biden case, citing testimony from two IRS whistleblowers who say the Justice Department meddled with their work.
The department has denied the allegations and said that U.S. Attorney David Weiss in Delaware, the federal prosecutor who led the investigation, always had full authority over the case. Weiss was appointed during the Trump administration.
Republicans have requested interviews with Weiss and other Justice Department officials, but those are not likely until after the case is closed, in line with department policy.
Hanging over the proceedings were GOP threats to impeach Attorney General Merrick Garland and withhold money for federal law enforcement as Congress in the midst of preparing annual spending bills.
At one point, Rep. Thomas Massie showed a short surveillance video moments before officials found a pipe bomb outside the Democratic National Committee’s Capitol Hill headquarters on the day of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack. Massie, R-Ky., demanded answers about the investigation.
“We fund your department so you need to provide that,” Massie said.
Another focus of the hearing was the push to reauthorize a program under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, that grants agencies such as the FBI broad powers to surveil and examine communications of foreigners outside the United States.
A provision known as Section 702 is set to expire at year’s end unless Congress agrees to renew it. Members of both parties are frustrated with the program, citing allegations of federal officials abusing the system.
Wray, meanwhile, discussed a difference of opinion over Garland’s 2021 memo instructing the FBI to coordinate with local law enforcement over threats against school boards. Republicans have complained that went too far in trying to police parents.
“I will say to you the same thing that I said to all 56 of our field offices as soon as I read the memo, which is that the FBI is not in the business of investigating or policing speech at school board meetings or anywhere else for that matter,” said Wray, who has led the FBI since Trump nominated him after firing James Comey in 2017.
The Justice Department has accused Trump of illegally storing government secrets at his Florida estate and then refusing to give them back after he left office. Trump has pleaded not guilty to 37 felony counts. A separate Justice Department investigation is probing efforts by Trump and his allies to undo Biden’s election in the run-up to Jan. 6, 2021.
Some of the GOP’s most conservative members are pushing to cut off some funding for the FBI, and Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has questioned a plan to move the FBI headquarters from downtown Washington to a suburb in Virginia or Maryland. He has said Congress should focus on FBI offices in the states.