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FBI Director Wray grilled as House GOP members allege 'politicization' of the agency

FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies before a House Committee on the Judiciary oversight hearing on Wednesday.
Patrick Semansky
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AP
FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies before a House Committee on the Judiciary oversight hearing on Wednesday.

Updated July 12, 2023 at 6:02 PM ET

FBI Director Christopher Wray was in the hot seat Wednesday as he fielded questions — and accusations — from members of the House Judiciary Committee.

The interactions between lawmakers (particularly Republicans) and Wray were, at times, tense and heated as the director addressed questions, most framed as accusations that the FBI pursues a political agenda. Committee members questioned Wray over the agency's response to Jan. 6, investigations into former President Donald Trump, President Biden and the wider Biden family, the agency's use of the federal program known as FISA — the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act — which conducts surveillance of foreign entities for national security reasons, among a litany of other issues.

Republican lawmakers in charge of the committee, including Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio, called the hearing to focus on their concern that the agency has grown increasingly politicized under Wray's leadership.

At the start of the hearing, Jordan alleged that the FBI has illegally scrutinized conservatives and Catholics and engaged in the "weaponization of the government against the American people."

Jordan has loudly criticized the FBI outside of the hearing and made it clear he plans try to block money for some FBI programs, including a planned new agency headquarters.

As part of his opening statement, Jordan also brought up allegations that the FBI supposedly worked with social media companies to censor stories about Hunter Biden's laptop ahead of the 2020 election, that agency whistleblowers face retaliation and that the bureau's Richmond office drafted a now-withdrawn memo targeting extremism in Catholic churches.

Democrats see the hearing and other attacks on the FBI as a way to settle scores related to the two impeachments of then-President Trump and other disputes. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., called the GOP-led committee "MAGA Republicans" and the "legislative arm of the Trump reelection campaign" during the hearing.

As Wray tackled the questions, the White House issued a statement criticizing Republicans for holding the hearing.

"Extreme House Republicans have decided that the only law enforcement they like is law enforcement that suits their own partisan political agenda. Instead of backing the blue, they're attacking the blue – going after the FBI, federal prosecutors, and other law enforcement professionals with political stunts to try to get themselves attention on the far right," Ian Sams, the White House spokesperson for oversight and investigations, said in a statement.

For his part, Wray defended the work of the FBI's 38,000 personnel in his opening statement to the committee.

"Those men and women, who choose to dedicate their careers—their lives, really—to this kind of work and to fulfilling the FBI mission, are inspiring," Wray said in his statement to the committee.

Rep. Jim Jordan chairs a House Judiciary Committee hearing on oversight of the FBI.
Drew Angerer / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Rep. Jim Jordan chairs a House Judiciary Committee hearing on oversight of the FBI.

He went on to say, "Today's FBI leaders reflect the best of this organization."

Republican lawmakers' attitudestoward the bureau have changed in recent years with Wray and his agency under attack since he took over the position. Wray became the eighth head of the FBI on Aug. 2, 2017.

House Judiciary Committee Republicans have kept their promise made last year that the FBI and Department of Justice would be under their microscope once they took over the House.

Wray's appearance Wednesday comes after a threat from House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer, R-Ky., to start contempt proceedings against Wray last month. Republicans alleged Wray and other FBI officials have withheld information tied to an investigation into President Biden and his family.

The FBI has said those contempt proceedings, which didn't move forward, are "unwarranted."

The criticism toward the FBI under Wray's leadership, as well as the DOJ, continued after Hunter Biden pleaded guilty to federal income tax charges and a felony firearm offense.

Republicans have alleged that Biden engaged in a bribery schemewith a foreign national during his time as vice president. The White House, and others, have denied these claims.

These topics were brought up by Republican members within the first 30 minutes of the hearing and continued to come up throughout the hours-long meeting.

In one of the most heated exchanges of the day, Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida directly asked Wray, "Are you protecting the Bidens?"

To which Wray answered, "Absolutely not."

Lawmakers prod Wray on FBI's use of social media

Republican members ran with a recent court decision by a federal district judge in Louisiana that could impact how the government can engage with social media companies to combat disinformation and misinformation.

District Court Judge Terry Doughty issued a preliminary injunction barring several federal agencies from certain interactions with social media companies.

Chairman Jordan said Wednesday that "the court found that the federal government suppressed Americans' First Amendment free speech rights."

Wray pushed back on this reading of the decision saying the, "FBI is not in the business of moderating social media" and that the agency doesn't ask social media sites to suppress information.

Democrats criticize FBI's timidity in investigating Trump

Wray arrives to testify before the House Judiciary Committee.
Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Wray arrives to testify before the House Judiciary Committee.

Wray did not escape some criticism by Democratic lawmakers, Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Adam Schiff.

Lofgren questioned Wray on reports that FBI investigators slow-walked inquiries into Trump's role in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

She asked Wray if he knew whether investigators looked into Trump's role in the insurrection in the early days after the attack at the Capitol. She suggested there was an "unprecedented delay" in investigating Trump and that Republican lawmakers were wrong about the former president being unfairly targeted.

Schiff similarly called the perceived delay as "inexplicable." He also questioned the FBI's slow response to dig into Trump's refusal to hand over classified documents that he kept at his resort in Florida.

Democrats and Republicans shared concerns over reported abuses of the FBI's use of FISA — which Wray conceded is an area the bureau is working to address.

Among those abuses are reportedly that investigators used FISA to look into Black Lives Matter protesters.

The FBI says it uses Section 702 of FISA "to further its national security investigations."

"Section 702 allows the FBI to collect on a target who is a non-U.S. person, outside the United States, for foreign intelligence purposes, without submitting an individualized application or obtaining an individualized order," according to the agency.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jaclyn Diaz is a reporter on Newshub.