WASHINGTON — FBI Director Christopher Wray on Thursday countered strident attacks on his agency by President Donald Trump, saying, "There is no finer institution than the FBI."
Wray testified before the House Judiciary Committee as Democrats and Republicans clashed over the significance of Trump's attacks on the agency. In a storm of tweets last weekend, Trump called the nation's top law enforcement agency a biased institution whose reputation is "in Tatters — worst in History!" and urged Wray to "clean house."
Democrats pushed Wray to respond forcefully, while Republicans echoed Trump in suggesting they worry about political bias in special counsel Robert Mueller's probe of possible Trump campaign ties to Russia during the 2016 presidential election. Like Trump, they seized on revelations that an FBI agent was removed from Mueller's team because of anti-Trump texts.
"There is no shortage of opinions out there, but what I can tell you is that the FBI that I see is tens of thousands of agents and analysts and staff working their tails off to keep Americans safe," Wray said of the agency he has led for just four months. "The FBI that I see is tens of thousands of brave men and women working as hard as they can to keep people they will never know safe from harm."
Wray conceded that agents do make mistakes and said there are processes in place to hold them accountable.
His defense of the FBI came after the committee's chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said he was concerned by reports about Peter Strzok, a veteran counterintelligence agent involved in the Clinton investigation, being removed from Mueller's team last summer following the discovery of text messages seen as potentially anti-Trump.
"It is absolutely unacceptable for FBI employees to permit their own political predilections to contaminate any investigation," Goodlatte said. "Even the appearance of impropriety will devastate the FBI's reputation."
Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, top Democrat on the House Judiciary panel, predicted Trump's attacks on the FBI will only grow louder as Mueller continues investigating. "Your responsibility is not only to defend the bureau but to push back against the president when he is so clearly wrong, both on the facts and as a matter of principle," Nadler told Wray.
Wray's tenure as the new FBI chief would be difficult enough even without the intense scrutiny of the Russia investigation. Since he was sworn in on Aug. 2, the U.S. has experienced two of the deadliest shootings in its modern history and an attack seen as terrorism in Manhattan.
Trump's weekend tweets created a fresh dilemma for Wray. With his bosses, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Sessions' deputy, Rod Rosenstein, staying publicly silent, it fell to Wray to defend the agency. But FBI directors traditionally have been low-key and stoic — with Wray's predecessor, James Comey, a notable exception.
And Trump's firing of Comey while he led the Russia probe shows what can happen to a director who antagonizes the president.
Wray repeatedly deflected questions about the FBI's handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, saying the entire matter was under review by the Justice Department's inspector general.
Republicans repeatedly pressed him on reports that Strzok tweaked the language of the FBI's finding from "grossly negligent" — the standard laid out in the relevant statute — to "extremely careless," which was the language that Comey ultimately used in discussing the Clinton case with the public.