FBI Director Christopher Wray Testifies Before House Panel - The World News

FBI Director Christopher Wray Testifies Before House Panel

Republicans bombarded Christopher A. Wray, the F.B.I. director, on Wednesday with criticisms about his role in the Trump documents investigation, efforts to address extremist violence and the bureau’s surveillance practices during a contentious House Judiciary Committee hearing.

Republicans on the committee, led by the chairman, Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, treated Mr. Wray as if he were a hostile witness — repeatedly interrupting his attempts to answer their rapid-fire queries. Most of the Republicans sought to portray the nation’s premier law enforcement agency, and Mr. Wray, who was appointed by President Donald J. Trump, as political tools of the Democrats.

For the most part, Democrats defended him, though some on the committee grilled him about the F.B.I.’s practice of extracting the personal information of American citizens from the internet.

Mr. Wray, a registered Republican, forcefully rejected accusations that he had sought to protect President Biden, or his son Hunter Biden, or that he had targeted Mr. Trump — describing the F.B.I.’s role in the search at Mar-a-Lago last August as lawful, restrained and prompted by a court order.

He remained mostly impassive, but grew agitated when asked about a comment from one committee Republican suggesting Congress should defund the bureau.

“It would hurt 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. “The people it would help would be those same violent gangs and cartels, foreign terrorists, Chinese spies, hackers and so forth.

Mr. Wray, appearing for the first time before the Judiciary Committee since Republicans won the House, girded for the worst. The committee has said it “will examine the politicization” of the F.B.I. under Mr. Wray and Attorney General Merrick B. Garland.

In his opening statement, Mr. Jordan accused the bureau of a litany of abuses. He urged Democratic lawmakers to join Republicans in blocking the reauthorization of a warrantless surveillance program known as Section 702 and raised questions about funding for the bureau’s new headquarters.

“I hope they will work with us in the appropriations process to stop the weaponization of the government against the American people and end this double standard that exists now in our justice system,” he said.

Anticipating the questioning to come, the top Democrat on the committee, Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, described the hearing as “little more than performance art.” He countered that Republicans had initiated an array of “baseless investigations” in a bid to “protect Donald Trump from the consequences of his actions.”

Here is a guide to the hearing:

Mr. Wray infuriated Mr. Trump, who viewed the director’s declaration of independence as disloyalty. But Mr. Wray has previously testified before Congress, steadfastly defending the F.B.I. as nonpartisan and taking fire on Twitter from Mr. Trump, while he was president.

Since being appointed to the job in 2017, Mr. Wray has been under constant pressure from Republicans, who have simultaneously decried lawlessness in cities run by Democrats while attacking the F.B.I.’s role in political investigations.

In the past, Mr. Wray has responded to attacks by parsing his words carefully. In his opening statement, he forcibly defended the F.B.I. and declined to discuss open investigations, which is the policy of the Justice Department.

“I want to talk about the sheer breadth and impact of the work the F.B.I.’s 38,000 employees are doing, each and every day,” he said, citing the bureau’s work in addressing violent crime, fentanyl trafficking and efforts by China to steal trade secrets. “Because the work the men and women of the F.B.I. do to protect the American people goes way beyond the one or two investigations that seem to capture all the headlines.”

Mr. Trump and his supporters — as well as a vocal group of former F.B.I. officials who have aligned themselves with Republicans in Congress — believe the government is trying to silence and punish conservatives and see the bureau as a dangerous extension of that effort.

Case in point: In January, House Republicans voted to investigate law enforcement, creating the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government.

Republicans have claimed that the F.B.I. prodded Twitter to discriminate against their party as well as conservative or right-wing protesters at school board meetings and abortion clinics. Those issues have proved to be powerful drivers of voter turnout in the party’s pro-Trump base.

The subcommittee is led by Mr. Jordan, a close ally of Mr. Trump’s.

Last month, House Republicans on the Oversight Committee moved to hold Mr. Wray in contempt of Congress. But they called off a planned vote days later after the bureau said it would make available a document at the center of their dispute, involving an unverified allegation of bribery against Mr. Biden when he was vice president.

Mr. Trump and his allies have raged at his indictment and the search of Mar-a-Lago in August, when F.B.I. agents descended on his residence and uncovered hundreds of classified documents.

The former president and his supporters have said that Mr. Trump declassified the records, meaning there was no misconduct to start, and that the search was an example of an uneven application of justice.

In his questioning, Representative Russell Fry, Republican of South Carolina, described the search as an “unprecedented raid” and said it was “a shocking escalation in what we talk about with the weaponization of the federal government against political opponents.”

Mr. Wray pointed to court filings that painstakingly outlined reasons for the search.

So far no evidence has emerged that the documents were declassified or that the search, which was approved by a federal judge, was improper or politically motivated. In fact, the search unfolded after Mr. Trump repeatedly resisted the government’s requests that he return the material.

In recent weeks, Steven D’Antuono, the former top F.B.I. agent overseeing the documents case, testified behind closed doors before Mr. Jordan.

Asked if “anyone was motivated by animus” in the documents investigation, Mr. D’Antuono said no, according to a transcript of his testimony.

Under the deal with the Justice Department, Mr. Biden agreed to plead guilty to misdemeanor counts of failing to pay his 2017 and 2018 taxes on time and to be sentenced to probation. The department also said it would not prosecute him for buying a handgun in 2018 during a period when he was using drugs.

Republicans have assailed the deal, calling it too lenient, even though years of investigation by a Trump-appointed U.S. attorney found evidence to charge Mr. Biden only on the narrow tax and gun issues, rather than the wide-ranging international conspiracies peddled by Mr. Trump and his allies.

That U.S. attorney, David C. Weiss, who signed off on the agreement, has also come under fire. On Monday, Mr. Weiss rebutted a key element of testimony to Congress by an Internal Revenue Service official who said that Mr. Weiss had complained about being blocked from pursuing more serious charges.

A final report by John H. Durham, the Trump-era special counsel, looked at the origins of the F.B.I.’s investigation into any ties Mr. Trump’s campaign had with Russia but found no evidence of politically motivated misconduct.

Still, Mr. Durham’s report has continued to fuel Republican claims of bias, with some accusing the F.B.I. of making moves motivated by political favoritism.

That charge almost immediately resurfaced during Mr. Wray’s hearing. Mr. Durham’s “lengthy report reluctantly concluded that the F.B.I., quote, failed to uphold its mission of strict fidelity to the law,” said Representative Mike Johnson, Republican of Louisiana.

Even as Mr. Trump and his loyalists had long insisted that Mr. Durham’s investigation would unearth a “deep state” conspiracy intended to damage him politically, Mr. Durham never charged high-level government officials.

Instead, Mr. Durham developed only two peripheral cases involving accusations of making false statements, both of which ended in acquittals, while using his report to cite flaws in the F.B.I.’s early investigative steps that he attributed to confirmation bias.

In a prolonged exchange, Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida, grilled Mr. Wray about the F.B.I.’s use of a warrantless surveillance program known as Section 702, pointing to a court ruling in May that found that the bureau violated rules governing the program.

The opinion, which was partly redacted, said that the F.B.I. had improperly searched a database of communications intercepted under Section 702 for information on people suspected of participating in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

While the F.B.I. has imposed new limits since then, such misuses have given ammunition to critics of the program as national security agencies try to persuade Congress to renew it.

Republicans who have adopted Mr. Trump’s hostility toward the bureau have joined with civil libertarians who have long expressed skepticism of the law, which expires at the end of the year.

That dynamic was on display on Wednesday, as Representative Ben Cline, Republican of Virginia, cast Section 702 as “a framework that allows the F.B.I. to spy on countless Americans” and said he believed it posed a problem for the reauthorization of the program.

Republicans have claimed the Justice Department is “weaponized” against conservatives, but the allegations that were brought forth by aggrieved former F.B.I. officials have foundered.

Instead, Democratic investigators have uncovered that those former F.B.I. officials have trafficked in right-wing conspiracy theories, including about the Jan. 6, 2021, attack at the Capitol, and have received financial support from a top ally of Mr. Trump’s.

In a heated exchange, Mr. Gaetz said the American public trusted the F.B.I. more under J. Edgar Hoover, the bureau’s first director, than under the leadership of Mr. Wray. Mr. Wray countered that the number of F.B.I. applicants had surged in Mr. Gaetz’s home state. Mr. Gaetz said he was “deeply proud” of these people and added that “they deserve better than you.”

Still, the back-and-forth is having an impact. Mr. D’Antuono, in his testimony, rebuffed allegations of political bias and rejected calls to defund the bureau — but expressed concern about the future.

“In my opinion,” he said, “the more the American people hear about not trusting the F.B.I., it’s not a good day for this country.”

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