By Devlin Barrett and Ellen Nakashima,
The head of the House Judiciary Committee said Thursday that the FBI’s reputation is on the line as he faces questions about the conduct of senior officials at the agency and how they have handled investigations into President Trump and his former political opponent Hillary Clinton.
“It does appear to me that at the very least the FBI’s reputation as an impartial, non-political agency has come into question,’’ said Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) “Even the appearance of impropriety will devastate the FBI’s reputation. We hope to hear from you today about an action plan for making sure this never happens again.’’
The senior Democrat on the committee, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), warned Wray that he was under attack from Republicans, and urged him to publicly rebut criticism from the president.
“I predict that these attacks on the FBI will grow louder and more brazen as the special counsel does his work and the walls close in around the president,’’ said Nadler. “Your job requires you to have the courage in these circumstances to stand up to the president.’’
Republicans at Thursday’s hearing renewed their demands for a second special counsel to be appointed to investigate Clinton and the FBI, particularly in light of new information that a senior agent on the Clinton case allegedly exchanged anti-Trump and pro-Clinton messages with another senior FBI official during the presidential campaign.
That investigator, Peter Strzok, had also played a central role in the FBI’s investigation of possible coordination between Trump associates and Russian agents, until late July when special counsel Robert S. Mueller III learned of the messages and removed him from the case.
Strzok’s communications with senior FBI lawyer Lisa Page are now being investigated by the Justice Department’s inspector general. Page had also worked on Mueller’s team, but she left that post two weeks before Strzok’s departure for what officials have said were unrelated reasons.
Under questioning from Goodlatte, Wray declined to discuss the particulars of Strzok’s role in the Clinton probe, or the FBI’s handling more generally of that matter, because those issues are under investigation by the inspector general.
“I think it would not be appropriate for me to speculate about what the inspector general will or will not find,’’ said Wray.
The president and his defenders have seized on the Strzok-Page matter to again attack the Russia probe, with Trump tweeting over the weekend that the FBI’s reputation was in tatters.
In the wake of the revelations about Strzok, conservative lawmakers and activists have renewed their attacks on the FBI, saying his conduct and other issues, such as political donations by lawyers working under Mueller, show the probe is biased against the president.
While some Republicans have called for a second special counsel to investigate FBI conduct, others have argued that Mueller’s probe should be shut down, or given a time limit to complete its work.
Wray is expected to face questions about Mueller, Strzok and senior FBI officials who work for him but were put in those jobs by his predecessor, James B. Comey. Wray became the director four months ago after Comey was fired by Trump, and the new director has tried to keep a low profile and steer the agency clear of the public fights surrounding Trump, Clinton and Comey.
Earlier this week, Wray sent a message to the staff of the FBI, praising their dedication and integrity.
“We find ourselves under the microscope each and every day — and rightfully so,’’ Wray wrote. In the note, he alluded to Thursday’s hearing, where he will again publicly defend the FBI.
The note ends with one of Wray’s favorite phrases to his personnel: “Keep calm and tackle hard.’’