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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

House Republicans criticize FBI in contentious hearing

FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies before the House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, July 12, 2023.

By Adam Goldman and Glenn Thrush

Republicans bombarded Christopher Wray, the FBI director, earlier this week with criticisms about his role in investigating former President Donald 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 chair, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, treated 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 Wray, who was appointed by Trump, as a political tool of the Democrats.

Time and again, Wray, a registered Republican, rejected accusations that he had sought to shield President Joe Biden or his son, Hunter Biden, or that he had targeted Trump. The FBI’s search of the former president’s Mar-a-Lago estate in August as agents sought to recover sensitive documents from his time in office, 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,” Wray said, responding to Rep. Harriet M. Hageman, R-Wyo., 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 FBI 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. 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 Trump’s anger and mistakes the FBI made while investigating him.

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

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

Trump and his supporters — as well as a vocal group of former FBI 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. Jordan has even hired former FBI 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 Wray in contempt of Congress. (They called off a planned vote days later.)

That dynamic was on full display Wednesday, as Jordan opened the hearing by accusing the FBI 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 Wray. But some on the committee grilled him about the FBI’s practice of extracting the personal information of American citizens from the internet, and Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., took aim at the bureau’s history of surveilling progressive movements.

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

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

In one exchange, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., grilled Wray about the FBI’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 FBI 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 FBI for a memo, drafted by an analyst in the bureau’s Richmond, Virginia, field office, that cited potential threats from Catholic extremists in the run-up to the 2024 election. Jordan said several bureau officials, including a lawyer in the Richmond office, apparently approved the memo. Wray, describing himself as “aghast” after seeing it, replied that he immediately shelved the memo and that the matter was under internal review.

There was one area in which 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 FBI’s investigation into ties Trump’s campaign had with Russia but found no evidence of politically motivated misconduct.

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

Even as Trump and his loyalists insisted that Durham’s investigation would unearth a “deep state” conspiracy intended to damage him politically, 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 FBI’s early investigative steps that he attributed to confirmation bias.

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.

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