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FBI Director Christopher Wray Testifies Before House Panel

Christopher A. Wray standing with his arm raised. In the background, a screen on a wall above an audience displays the room.
Christopher A. Wray, the F.B.I. director, rejected accusations that he had sought to shield President Biden or his son, or that he had targeted former President Donald J. Trump.Credit...Kenny Holston/The New York Times

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

Committee Republicans, 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 with shouted rebuttals. Most sought to portray the nation’s premier law enforcement agency, and Mr. Wray, who was appointed by President Donald J. Trump, as a political tool of the Democrats.

Time and again, Mr. Wray, a registered Republican, rejected accusations that he had sought to shield President Biden or his son, Hunter Biden, or that he had targeted Mr. Trump. The F.B.I.’s search of the former president’s Mar-a-Lago estate last August as agents sought to recover sensitive documents from his time in office, Mr. Wray added, was lawful, restrained and prompted by a court order.

“The idea that I’m biased against conservatives seems somewhat insane to me, given my own personal background,” Mr. Wray said, responding to Representative Harriet M. Hageman, a Wyoming Republican who unseated Liz Cheney last year, as she claimed that he had perpetuated a “two-tiered” system of justice. In earlier questioning, he flatly denied that the bureau was being weaponized.

“The F.B.I. does not and has no interest in protecting anyone politically,” he said when another committee Republican asked if he was “protecting” the Bidens.

The five-hour session produced little in the way of new information. Mr. Wray, who has adopted a cautious approach in previous congressional testimony, repeatedly refused to answer questions about open investigations but at times was visibly annoyed. Still, the hearing highlighted a political reorientation of sorts for Republicans. In decades past, they defended the bureau as a bulwark of law and order, but are now seeking to erode public confidence in the agency’s impartiality, stoked by Mr. Trump’s anger and mistakes the F.B.I. made while investigating him.

Since his appointment in 2017, Mr. Wray has been under constant pressure from Republicans, who have simultaneously denounced lawlessness in cities run by Democrats and attacked the F.B.I.’s role in political investigations.

Mr. Wray infuriated Mr. Trump, who viewed the director’s declaration of independence as disloyalty.

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 — say the government is trying to silence and punish conservatives and see the bureau as a dangerous extension of that effort. Mr. Jordan has even hired former F.B.I. officials to help with his investigations.

Already, House Republicans have voted to investigate law enforcement, creating the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government in January. And last month, House Republicans on the Oversight Committee moved to hold Mr. Wray in contempt of Congress. (They called off a planned vote days later.)

That dynamic was on full display on Wednesday, as Mr. Jordan opened the hearing by accusing the F.B.I. 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.

For the most part, Democrats defended Mr. Wray. But some on the committee grilled him about the F.B.I.’s practice of extracting the personal information of American citizens from the internet, and Representative Cori Bush, a Missouri Democrat, took aim at the bureau’s history of surveilling progressive movements.

Mr. Jordan and his allies pursued several areas of questioning raised in earlier hearings where other federal law enforcement officials, including Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, testified.

Several Republicans took issue with the F.B.I.’s role in monitoring misinformation and threats on social media, claiming that Mr. Wray had conspired with social media companies to suppress reports on the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop, which he denied.

In one exchange, Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida, grilled Mr. Wray about the F.B.I.’s use of 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 the law for information on people suspected of participating in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

Republicans also criticized the F.B.I. for a memo, drafted by an analyst in the bureau’s Richmond, Va., field office, that cited potential threats from Catholic extremists in the run-up to the 2024 election. Mr. Jordan said several bureau officials, including a lawyer in the Richmond office, apparently approved the memo. Mr. Wray, describing himself as “aghast” after seeing it, replied that he immediately shelved the memo and that the matter was under internal review.

Mr. Wray pushed back hard when Representative Chip Roy, a Texas Republican, accused agents of using excessive force to arrest an anti-abortion activist in Pennsylvania, Mark Houck, who was acquitted of charges that he used violence to block access to a Planned Parenthood clinic. Among Republicans, Mr. Houck has become a symbol of F.B.I. overreach and animus toward conservatives. But Mr. Wray refused to second-guess the way his agents, who had decades of experience, handled the arrest.

“They did not storm his house,” Mr. Wray said. “They knocked on his door and identified themselves.”

The director was reluctant to engage on questions involving the F.B.I.’s search of Mr. Trump’s Florida residence and resort last summer, other than to confirm that his agents waited until the former president left Mar-a-Lago before conducting the search. He said he agreed with a federal judge that the government had probable cause to search the property given Mr. Trump’s repeated refusal to turn over sensitive government documents he took from the White House.

But he went even further when a committee Democrat asked about the disclosure that Mr. Trump had stacked boxes of government documents in common areas of his Mar-a-Lago club — as opposed to the sensitive compartmented information facilities, or SCIFs, used to provide officials with security clearances to classified materials.

“There are specific rules about where to store classified information and that those need to be stored in a SCIF,” Mr. Wray said. “And in my experience, ballrooms, bathrooms and bedrooms are not SCIFs.”

There was one area in which Mr. Wray and Republicans mostly agreed: the criticisms of the bureau raised in the final report from John H. Durham, the Trump-era special counsel, who examined the origins of the F.B.I.’s investigation into ties Mr. Trump’s campaign had with Russia but found no evidence of politically motivated misconduct.

Mr. Wray said he had enacted a series of changes and referred employees involved in the Russia inquiry, known as Crossfire Hurricane, to the F.B.I.’s office of professional responsibility.

Even as Mr. Trump and his loyalists 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, he 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.

Even though Mr. Wray sat alone at the witness table, his Republican interlocutors made it clear the entire bureau, and its 38,000 employees, was in effect on trial.

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. The director countered that the number of F.B.I. applicants had surged in Mr. Gaetz’s home state of Florida. Mr. Gaetz said he was “deeply proud” of these people and added that “they deserve better than you.”

Mr. Wray said talk on the right that the bureau be defunded and dismantled was an “ill-conceived effort.”

“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.

Posted on 13 Jul 2023 00:57 link