By Farnoush Amiri, Eric Tucker and Lisa Mascaro
FBI Director Chris Wray defended the “real FBI” during a contentious congressional hearing Wednesday, rejecting a litany of grievances from angry Republicans who are harshly critical of the bureau, threatening to defund some operations and claiming the Justice Department is unfair to political conservatives, including Donald Trump.
Wray refused to engage in specific questions about ongoing federal investigations, including those involving former President 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.” Referring to his own background, he said the idea that he harbors bias against conservatives is “insane.”
"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,” said Wray, a registered Republican whom Trump nominated to lead the FBI after firing James Comey in 2017.
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 law enforcement agencies they have long criticized. Wray testified for nearly six hours.
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 and listed other grievances over the FBI's 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 Republicans who are undertaking what he called baseless investigations too far-fetched to be true.
Wray generally steered clear of answering questions about the Justice Department's prosecution of Trump. The former president has pleaded not guilty to 37 felony counts over his mishandling of classified information at his Mar-a-Lago club and residence.
Wray did say that classified documents are required to be stored in what’s known as a “sensitive compartmented information facility,” or SCIF.
“In my experience,” he said, “ballrooms, bathrooms and bedrooms are not SCIFs.”
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.
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%.
“We’re deeply proud of them, and they deserve better than you,” Gaetz said.
Typically measured, Wray became animated 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 for emphasis. He later noted the Energy Department's intelligence arm reached a similar finding.
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 abusee. Three panels opened a joint investigation into the Hunter Biden case, and one announced Wednesday that the two IRS whistleblowers who claimed Justice improperly interfered in the case will appear before Congress next week.
Hanging over the proceedings are GOP threats to impeach Attorney General Merrick Garland and withhold money for federal law enforcement as Congress is in the midst of preparing annual spending bills. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has signaled he is open to impeachment and wants to rethink FBI spending on a new headquarters.
At one point, Rep. Thomas Massie showed a short surveillance video of the 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, which is ongoing.
“We fund your department so you need to provide that,” Massie said.
Republican criticisms of the FBI stretch back years, but became more prominent during the Trump-Russia investigation, when the Justice Department probed interference in the 2016 election.
One focus of Wednesday's hearing was the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, that grants the FBI and other agencies broad powers to surveil the communications of foreigners outside the United States. A provision known as Section 702 is set to expire unless Congress agrees to renew it. Members of both parties are frustrated with the program.
Underscoring the extent to which surveillance errors during the Trump-Russia investigation continue to shadow the FBI, Rep. Tom Tiffany, R-Wis., said he will be allowing FISA to "sunset" if there are no reforms.
Wray, meanwhile, acknowledged a difference 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.
Some of the GOP's most conservative members are pushing to cut off some funding for the FBI. McCarthy, R-Calif., has questioned spending money to build a new FBI headquarters out of downtown and in a Washington suburb. He has said Congress should focus on FBI offices in the states.