FBI chief Chris Wray defends bureau after Trump says its reputation is 'in tatters'
After President Donald Trump tweeted several days ago that the FBI's reputation 'is in tatters,' FBI Director Christopher Wray refuted that claim during a hearing on Capitol Hill. (Dec. 7) AP
WASHINGTON – FBI Director Christopher Wray offered a stirring defense of the agency on Thursday in the wake of rebukes from President Trump, who recently said the bureau's reputation was "in tatters" and called its impartiality into question.
"It is the honor of my life to lead the FBI," Wray told the House Judiciary Committee, the first time he has addressed Trump's criticism in public. "There is no finer institution than the FBI and no finer people who work there."
While he not mention Trump by name, Wray insisted that "the FBI I see are tens of thousands of agents who working their tails off. The FBI I see are tens of thousands of men and woman who are hard charging people of integrity."
When asked directly how the president's criticism has affected FBI agents and their work, Wray said, "the agents, analysts and staff of the FBI are big boys and girls. We understand we will take criticism from all corners." However, he added, "my experience is that our reputation is quite good."
President Trump weighs in on Twitter Sunday about ex-FBI Director James B. Comey and Michael Flynn.
Wray's testimony came minutes after the Republican chairman of the panel launched into a scathing critique of the FBI. Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte suggested comunications that led to the removal of a top counterintelligence official from the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election amounted to "insider bias" against Trump.
"The FBI's reputation has been called into question," Goodlatte said, opening an oversight hearing. "You, Director Wray, have a unique opportunity to repair the damage."
His comments echoed Trump's tweets last weekend that the FBI's reputation "is in Tatters - worst in History!"
Justice Department officials acknowledged last week that FBI agent Peter Strzok, a top counter-intelligence official, was abruptly reassigned earlier this year from special counsel Robert Mueller team investigating Russia's interference in the 2016 election. Strzok, who also helped run the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of State, was moved to the bureau’s human resources office.
His transfer came after Justice's inspector general discovered Strzok and another FBI official previously assigned to Mueller's team, Lisa Page, had exchanged communications critical of Trump.
Trump and his allies have jumped on the news in an attempt to discredit special counsel Mueller's investigation, which is also looking into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia and possible obstruction of justice by the president and his associates.
Trump's weekend outrage at the FBI followed new charges filed by Mueller's team against Trump's former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, for lying to FBI agents about his contacts with Russia Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Flynn, who has pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with Mueller's ongoing inquiry, was the fourth member of Trump's campaign team to be charged so far in the special counsel's far-reaching investigation. Flynn was the only one charged who also served in Trump's presidential administration.
Though several members pressed for more details about Strzok, Wray said he was awaiting the outcome of the inspector general's inquiry before he would address it publicly. He also suggested that he would consider sharing Strzok's communications with the House members.
"I'm looking forward to seeing what (the inspector general) finds," Wray said. He also said Strzok's reassignment was not disciplinary nor was it a demotion.
This week, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes directed his staff to prepare a contempt of Congress resolution against Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for "hiding" the agent's alleged political bias against Trump.
A spokesman for Mueller said last week that Strzok was removed from the Russia inquiry “immediately" after the special counsel learned of the allegations. Page had completed her detail to Mueller's inquiry before the office was made aware of the allegations.
The communications came to the attention of the inspector general during an ongoing inquiry into the handling of the Clinton email investigation by Justice and the FBI.
On Thursday, House Republicans appeared to take up where Trump's criticism left off. Texas Reps. Louie Gohmert and Ted Poe, Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador and South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy all expressed serious concerns that the bureau's operations had been tainted by politics.
Gohmert also took a swipe at Mueller, asserting that his 12-year tenure at the FBI resulted in the departure of veteran agents.
"The last two years have not been good for the Justice Department and for the bureau," Gowdy said, before reciting a list of recent politically charged actions involving Justice and the FBI.
He referred to former FBI director James Comey's disputed handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server; former attorney general Loretta Lynch's meeting with former president Bill Clinton during the course of the email investigation; and Attorney General Jeff Sessions's recusal from the ongoing Russia investigation because of his belated disclosure of contacts with Kislyak.
"When all else fails, we want to look to the FBI," Gowdy said. "But it's been a really bad two years."
Wray, however, said he would not have accepted Trump's nomination without a commitment to the "independence and impartiality" of the agency.