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FBI chief rejects Trump’s claim of agency ‘in tatters’

FBI Director Christopher Wray is pictured. | AP Photo

FBI Director Christopher Wray is sworn in during a hearing on Capitol Hill on Thursday. | Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo

FBI Director Christopher Wray on Thursday rejected President Donald Trump’s claim that the law enforcement agency’s reputation is “in tatters.”

“There is no shortage of opinions out there,” Wray said, without mentioning the president, during a House Judiciary Committee hearing after he was asked about Trump’s statement. “The FBI that I see is people, decent people, committed to the highest principles of dignity and professionalism and respect.”

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Trump has complained about the ongoing probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, firing former FBI Director James Comey over his handling of it and more recently complaining of bias after it was reported that special counsel Robert Mueller removed an FBI agent from the investigation for sending anti-Trump texts.

"After years of Comey…running the FBI, its reputation is in Tatters — worst in History!" Trump wrote on Twitter Sunday. "But fear not, we will bring it back to greatness."

Addressing Wray's comments, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders disputed any disagreement.

“We don’t think that there is a discrepancy," she said Thursday at the White House news briefing. "We agree with Chris Wray that FBI field agents are appreciated and respected. The president’s issues are with the political leaders in the FBI and their former director Comey, particularly those that played politics with the Hillary Clinton email probe. And we don’t see a discrepancy beyond that.”

It was unclear whom Sanders was referring to as "political leaders" of the FBI. Only the director of the agency is a political appointee.

Nevertheless, Trump's allegations of political bias put Wray, Comey's replacement at the FBI, in the crossfire on Capitol Hill, with Republicans demanding he clean up the agency and Democrats insisting he do more to stand up to the president.

Here are key moments from Wray's first oversight hearing since being confirmed in August:

• Wray vowed not to interfere with Mueller's investigation.

“There is not a person on this planet that can get me to drop a properly predicated investigation or start an investigation that is not properly predicated,” the FBI chief said.

Democrats deplored GOP attacks on Mueller and Comey. "It is sickening to listen to the good names of people like Bob Mueller and James Comey just be smeared,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.).

Asked by Swalwell if the president is “above the law,” Wray replied: “I don’t think anyone is above the law.”

• Wray deflected questions about bias allegations made toward senior FBI agents working on the probe into Hillary Clinton’s email server and Mueller’s probe, saying the Justice Department’s inspector general is investigating those claims.

Clinton was criticized for her handling of classified information as secretary of state but not charged with any crimes.

“I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to speculate about what the inspector general would or would not find,” Wray said. “My preference is to be one of those people that is not an act-first-and-ask-questions-later kind of guy, but an ask-questions-first-and-act-later kind of guy.”

However, Wray said he has told his FBI colleagues not to exhibit any bias.

“I’m emphasizing to every audience I can and inside the bureau that our decisions need to be made on no other basis than the facts and the law…not based on any political consideration by any side,” the FBI director said.

• Wray downplayed GOP talking points.

Records show Peter Strzok, the FBI agent removed from the Russia probe for sending anti-Trump text messages, changed a draft of Comey’s July 2016 statement about the findings of the Clinton email investigation, substituting the term “extremely careless” for “grossly negligent” in describing her handling of classified materials. The latter phrase tracks a criminal law provision.

Republicans believe the change is evidence of Strzok’s bias affecting his work, but Wray said Thursday: "Anyone with a thesaurus would say extremely careless and gross negligence are pretty close to each other."

• And he would not engage with one Republican's theory that Strzok's texts weren't the reason he was removed.

“There are all kinds of people on Mueller’s team who are pro-Clinton,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). “If he did [remove] everyone on the Mueller team who’s anti-Trump, I don’t think there’d be any guy left. There's got to be something more here.”

Jordan said he suspected Strzok sought warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court based on a disputed dossier of claims about Trump that was prepared by a private investigation firm with funds from the Clinton presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee.

Wray said those issues are classified, but the FBI is working to provide relevant information to the House Intelligence Committee. He said it was possible the FBI could provide similar information to the judiciary panel.

• As to whether the FBI should reopen its Clinton probe, Wray said the inspector general would weigh in on that.

“Depending on what the inspector general finds, there could be any range of steps that we or other will have to take,” Wray said in response to a question from Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) about whether agents' bias drove the FBI to recommend against charging the former Democratic presidential candidate.

“If he were to conclude that that’s what happened, then I think we’re at the point where we need to assess what needs to be done to unring that bell, if you will," Wray said.

• One Republican threatened to hold Wray in contempt because he would not disclose information about the FBI’s use of the so-called dossier.

“Whether Strzok was involved in this that needs to be disclosed to Congress,” Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) said. "We do have a right to conduct oversight of this.”

Wray said there were various reasons he could not discuss the issue publicly or that might limit disclosures to Congress, but he agreed that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act shouldn’t be misused.

• Wray confirmed that Strzok was transferred to the FBI’s human resources division, but the FBI chief insisted that i was not a punishment.

“That may sound to some of you like a demotion,” Wray said. “I think our human resources division is extremely important. A lot of what they do is cutting edge, best-practices stuff. It’s a very different kind of assignment, certainly, but that’s why I don’t consider it disciplinary.”

• House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said Wray needs to move quickly to restore the FBI's reputation.

"Reports on the bias of some of the career agents and lawyers on current special counsel Mueller's team are….deeply troubling to a system of blind and equal justice. Investigations must not be tainted by individuals imposing their own personal political opinions," Goodlatte said. "It is absolutely unacceptable for FBI employees to permit their own political predilections to contaminate any investigation. Even the appearance of impropriety will devastate the FBI's reputation."

At one juncture, the FBI director said his agency doesn’t typically delve into the political views of its personnel.

“We don’t do political scrubbing of our agents,” Wray said.

• Wray must do more to combat Trump's criticism, said the committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.).

Nadler said Wray struck the right tone with a message to his staff reassuring them on the day Trump took to Twitter to unloaded on the FBI as an agency "in tatters."

"It cannot be a coincidence that you sent this message to your agents just hours after President Trump launched an online tantrum aimed largely at the bureau as an institution," Nadler said. "You should do more than send a private email to your employees . You must stand up to the president of the United States."

• "I'm not really a Twitter guy," Wray told the panel.

Under questioning by Democrats, Wray called Mueller “very well respected” and concurred with a tweet Comey sent recently calling the bureau "honest," "strong" and "independent."

"I believe that description of the FBI aligns with my own description,” Wray declared, before adding: “My folks would tell you I’m not really a Twitter guy. I’ve never tweeted, do not have any plans to tweet, don’t really engage in tweeting.”

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