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FBI Director Chris Wray defends agency at House Judiciary Committee hearing

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

FBI Director Christopher Wray came under sharp and sustained criticism today from House Republicans. These are Republicans on the Judiciary Committee - among them, Chairman Jim Jordan, who said the agency is weaponized against conservatives.

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JIM JORDAN: American speech is censored. Parents are called terrorists. Catholics are called radicals. And I haven't even talked about the spying that took place of a presidential campaign or the raiding of a former president's home.

KELLY: On the other hand, Democrat Hank Johnson of Georgia argued the whole hearing was a political stunt.

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HANK JOHNSON: Welcome to the legislative arm of the Trump reelection campaign.

KELLY: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is here in the studio, and NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh is there on Capitol Hill. Welcome to you both.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Thank you.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Hey there.

KELLY: Deirdre, you start. This is Chris Wray's first appearance since Republicans took control of the House. And it sounds like the key lines of attack against the FBI were coming from Republicans?

WALSH: They were. And really, the overall theme that Republicans were making was that the FBI has created what they say is a two-tiered system of justice and is unfairly targeting Republicans and GOP allies. One after another, Republicans on the committee complained about how the agency is handling investigations such as the one dealing with classified documents, saying there's one standard for former President Trump and one for President Biden. Republicans also criticized how the FBI has handled probes into the president's son, Hunter Biden, saying that there's been retaliation against whistleblowers. We should also note that Wray faced some criticism from Democrats, too. For example, California Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren pressed Wray about what she thought was special treatment of Trump during the search at Mar-a-Lago.

KELLY: OK, so criticism from all sides. Carrie, how's the FBI responding to that?

C JOHNSON: You know, the criticism from Republicans is a little bit jarring because Chris Wray is a lifelong Republican.

KELLY: Yeah.

C JOHNSON: He was a veteran of the George W. Bush Justice Department. He clerked for the conservative luminary Michael Luttig. He worked for Chris Christie. And Donald Trump appointed him as the FBI director. Here's what Chris Wray had to say late this afternoon after a number of lawmakers kept pressing him on these - this line of attack.

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CHRISTOPHER WRAY: The idea that I'm biased against conservatives seems somewhat insane to me given my own personal background.

KELLY: The - I guess the challenge here, Carrie, is that there are a bunch of politically sensitive investigations underway, and the FBI is right in the thick of it.

C JOHNSON: Right in the thick of it - you know, former President Donald Trump has been indicted on charges of willful retention of highly classified documents he kept in a bathroom, a storage room at his Florida resort, and then allegedly obstructed the FBI investigation. This week, Donald Trump asked a judge to basically delay his trial until after the election 'cause he's running again. There's another sensitive investigation. The current president's son, Hunter Biden, recently reached a plea deal to plead guilty to two misdemeanors for failing to pay taxes. Republican lawmaker Matt Gaetz of Florida clashed with the FBI director about that today.

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MATT GAETZ: Are you protecting the Bidens?

WRAY: Absolutely not. The FBI does not...

GAETZ: Well, you won't answer the...

WRAY: ...Has no interest in...

GAETZ: Well, hold on. You won't answer...

WRAY: ...Protecting anyone politically.

GAETZ: ...The question about whether or not that's a shakedown. And everybody knows why you won't answer it.

KELLY: Deirdre, was there any area where Democrats and Republicans seemed on the same page sharing concerns about the FBI?

WALSH: There was actually one. Chairman Jordan, as well as Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal - she chairs the Progressive Caucus - blasted the FISA program. That's the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. They both argued it infringes on Americans' privacy. This is the program set up to protect against national security threats, but lawmakers from both sides of the aisle say - have real concerns about the kinds of data it's collected. We should note that the program's up for reauthorization at the end of this year, but it's pretty clear after today's hearing it's going to need bipartisan reforms.

KELLY: I suppose it's worth backing up just for a second and reminding people of the context here, Carrie. All of this rhetoric, these verbal attacks against Chris Wray, against the FBI - they did not start today, right? This goes back - I mean, one date you could put on it would be the search of former President Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort.

C JOHNSON: Yeah, but one thing that was new, a little bit new that we heard today, Mary Louise, is that the FBI director says there have been real consequences. The FBI has had to stand up a special unit to look into threats against its agents and employees. There have been credible death threats against the FBI director himself. There have also been armed protests at an FBI field office in Phoenix and an armed man trying to break into the bureau's Cincinnati office. So this is very alarming for senior FBI and DOJ officials, for sure.

KELLY: Meanwhile, there is a push for defunding the FBI. Deirdre, that's coming from Republicans. How real did that feel today?

WALSH: I mean, it's going to be an uphill battle in this divided Congress. But politically, it just shows how much the Republican Party has changed under the leadership of Donald Trump. For years, the party touted itself as the law-and-order party, and Republicans attacked Democrats for defunding the police. But now we see people like Jim Jordan pushing to zero out money for the FBI's program. There's one planned move for a new headquarters in the suburbs outside Washington, D.C., and Jordan, in an upcoming spending bill, is trying to get rid of that money.

KELLY: Carrie, I'm going to give you last word. I'm guessing Chris Wray is not behind these plans to defund the FBI.

C JOHNSON: No, he says that would be bad for the 38,000 employees but also, maybe even more importantly, for the communities that they serve as we face a scourge of gun and drug-fueled violence here across the country.

KELLY: That is NPR's Carrie Johnson and NPR's Deirdre Walsh over on Capitol Hill for us today. Thanks to you both.

C JOHNSON: Happy to do it.

WALSH: Thanks, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.