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FBI chief Chris Wray: ‘Insane’ to say I’m biased against conservatives

FBI director sparred for hours with Republicans who are critical of how the agency has handled politically sensitive cases

FBI Director Christopher A. Wray testifies during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)
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FBI Director Christopher A. Wray testified before Congress for hours Wednesday, defending his record and that of his agents as Republicans attacked what they called politically motivated investigations and threatened to take away some of the bureau’s budget or surveillance authority.

Speaking to the House Judiciary Committee, Wray sounded exasperated at times with both the criticisms and the premise behind them — that as a Republican appointed by President Donald Trump, he was nevertheless out to get Republicans.

“The idea that I’m biased against conservatives seems somewhat insane to me, given my own personal background,” Wray said.

The hearing was Wray’s first congressional testimony since Trump was indicted last month on 37 charges of mishandling national security documents and obstructing government efforts to recover them. Trump has pleaded not guilty.

Also in June, Hunter Biden struck a deal with federal prosecutors, in which he plans to plead guilty to two tax misdemeanors and admit to illegal gun possession, though he will not plead guilty to the gun charge.

The two cases have brought new energy to attacks by Republicans, particularly pro-Trump lawmakers, who have accused the nation’s premier law enforcement agency of favoring liberals and unfairly pursuing conservatives.

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The Judiciary Committee chairman, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), has been one of the FBI’s most strident critics. On Wednesday, he called the agency’s work “Orwellian.” Some Republicans have suggested FBI headquarters be moved out of the Washington, D.C., area, or proposed withholding the salaries of some officials, though it’s not clear that those proposals have wide support in either chamber of Congress.

Democrats were much more tempered than Republicans in their questions at the hearing — largely supportive of the bureau but at times asking whether the FBI had, rather than being too tough on Trump as Republicans claim, been too gentle.

“Our folks take great pains to be rigorous, professional, objective,” Wray insisted, saying his message to the agents is always to “do the work in the right way, and sometimes that’s frustrating to others.”

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In a sign of the tensions that have surrounded the FBI for years, Wray noted that there is now a unit that tracks threats made to bureau personnel and locations. “I don’t think there’s been a more difficult time for an FBI director,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) said.

House Republicans have increasingly targeted Wray directly — threatening last month to hold him in contempt of Congress in a dispute over access to an FBI report of a confidential informant’s 2017 and 2020 corruption allegations against the Biden family. The Republicans ultimately backed away from taking that step, but it’s clear that Wray remains in their crosshairs.

One of the most heated exchanges came when Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) raised allegations made against Hunter Biden, and asked the director: “Are you protecting the Bidens?”

“Absolutely not,” Wray shot back.

Gaetz then accused Wray of being “blissfully ignorant” of problems at the bureau, including repeated misuses of a surveillance authority known as Section 702.

Internal reviews have found significant failures in the digital data collection program in recent years, and conservatives in particular have vowed not to renew the program when it expires at the end of the year. Jordan and other conservatives have sought to join forces with some liberal lawmakers to try to end or significantly curtail the 702 program, which intelligence officials have long described as a crown jewel of the government’s efforts to stop terrorists.

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) dismissed much of the Republican criticism of the FBI as thinly disguised campaigning for Trump’s 2024 presidential bid. He noted that the criminal charges filed by the Justice Department in recent years against people close to the former president — including his former 2016 campaign chairman and his deputy — were in many cases investigated or prosecuted by Trump appointees.

“We don’t have a two-tiered system of justice,” Lieu said. “All of these folks were convicted under the administrations of three separate Republican attorneys general. It is not the fault of the FBI that Donald Trump surrounded himself with criminals. Donald Trump brought that upon himself.”

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Wray tried to shift the discussion toward the FBI’s larger mission: fighting terrorism, hacking and other crime.

The agency’s work “goes way beyond the one or two investigations that seem to capture all the headlines,” Wray said in his prepared remarks. “Take violent crime: Last year alone, working shoulder to shoulder with our partners in state and local law enforcement, the FBI arrested more than 20,000 violent criminals and child predators — an average of almost 60 bad guys taken off the streets per day, every day.” He also cited work against drug cartels, Chinese espionage and financial fraud.

Since becoming the FBI director in 2017 after Trump fired James B. Comey, Wray has changed some FBI policies to address mistakes in past cases, including in the investigation of the 2016 Trump campaign, and tried to chart a more cautious course. But in part because of FBI actions in 2016, political controversies and cases have continued to dog the bureau.

“I’m very mindful of the fact that the whole reason I’m in this job is because my predecessor was fired and in a fairly scathing inspector general report, one of the things he was criticized for was sharing more information both with the public and frankly with Congress than was consistent with federal rules,” Wray said Wednesday.

He also distanced himself somewhat from one of the Biden administration’s own controversies — a 2021 memo from Attorney General Merrick Garland instructing the FBI to work with local leaders to address what Garland called “a disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence” against educators and school board members over issues such as mask mandates and curriculum.

Republicans have denounced the memo as an attempt to brand constitutionally protected speech and parental activism as somehow associated with terrorism — a charge the department has denied. At the time the memo was issued, Garland tried to draw an important distinction between security concerns and free speech.

“Threats against public servants are not only illegal, they run counter to our nation’s core values,” he wrote.

Under questioning Wednesday, Wray said when he first read the memo, his reaction was that “the FBI is not in the business of investigating or policing speech at school board meetings and we’re not going to start now.”

“Threats of violence, that’s different,” he added.

Wray said none of the instances the FBI examined in the wake of the Garland memo have resulted in federal charges.

“We have continued to follow our long-standing rules and have not changed anything in response to that memo,” he said.