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House panel criticizes FBI Director Wray for alleged politicization of the agency

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The FBI director took questions yesterday before a House committee. This is a regular ritual. Congress is supposed to hold agencies accountable. What was unusual was the ferocious criticism that Christopher Wray faced from House Republicans. You may recall that Wray was nominated by a Republican president and confirmed to the job by a Republican-led Senate. But Committee Chairman Jim Jordan repeated his party's talking points that the FBI is out to get them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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.

INSKEEP: Democrats are also on this House committee, and one of them, Hank Johnson, said the hearing was really just about politics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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

INSKEEP: NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh was listening to it all and is on the line. Good morning.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, lots of heat there, but give us some light. What did you learn?

WALSH: I think the hearing really underscored the influence that former President Trump, who's constantly attacking the FBI and the Justice Department, is having on the Republican Party. It was the first time since the GOP took control of the House for Wray to appear. And as you said, Congress has an oversight role for federal agencies. But for Republicans, it was less about examining specific programs and more about using the hearing for hours to repeat their argument that the FBI has created what they say is a two-tiered system of justice. Here's one exchange with Florida Republican Matt Gaetz and Director Wray.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATT GAETZ: Are you protecting the Bidens?

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

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

WRAY: It has no interest...

GAETZ: Well, hold on.

WRAY: ...In protecting anyone politically.

GAETZ: You won't answer the question about whether or not that's a shakedown, and everybody knows why you won't answer it.

WALSH: Wray came prepared for the attacks. He constantly outlined the mission and the priorities for the FBI. And for critics like Gaetz, he had state-specific statistics about how the FBI is recruiting for jobs in Florida and how the agency's been able to retain agents.

INSKEEP: Also, an unusual exchange there. He's asked a yes-no question, he answers no and is told he didn't answer the question. But has the Republican framing of the agency hurt it?

WALSH: Wray said it has. I mean, he said the consequence of the increasing criticism is a rise in threats against him, against FBI agents and prosecutors who are being targeted. Because of this, the FBI has had to stand up a special unit to look into these threats against employees and facilities. The roughly six hours of grilling had Wray in the position of constantly responding to a lot of false claims Republicans were making, some personally against him. Here's Wray responding to one of those.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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

WALSH: Wray's personal background is the fact that he's a lifelong Republican. He's worked for well-known Republicans like Chris Christie. He was nominated by former President Trump in 2017 after Trump fired then-FBI Director Jim Comey.

INSKEEP: So help me out with this here. As I understand it, some Republicans now want to defund the police. They've picked up the theme of defunding the police - in this specific case, of course, the FBI. They want to defund the FBI. Are they going to get anywhere with that?

WALSH: You know, that's an uphill battle in a divided Congress, and Republicans are actually split on that issue. Jordan, for his part, is pushing to zero out money for a planned new FBI headquarters that was supposed to be built outside Washington in an upcoming spending bill. He wants to move it to Alabama. He's also targeting other FBI programs to be defunded. Again, this just shows you how the Republicans are taking their cues from former President Trump. And, you know, Democrats were the one yesterday who've come under attack for defunding the police, and they're the ones who say they need to spend money to create support for the FBI and its mission.

INSKEEP: NPR's Deirdre Walsh, thanks so much.

WALSH: Thanks, Steve. 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.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.