WASHINGTON (CN) - Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee hammered FBI Director Christopher Wray on Thursday over allegations that the probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election brims with bias against the president.
Wray appeared before the committee Thursday morning to testify at an oversight hearing, where GOP members pelted him with questions about Peter Strzok, an FBI agent removed recently from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe.
Considered to be the second-ranking counterintelligence official at the FBI, Strzok was reassigned to human resources after text messages he sent to FBI lawyer Lisa Page surfaced that were perceived as biased against President Donald Trump. Strzok also faces scrutiny for his work on another high-profile case -- one that he also worked on with Page -- the investigation of Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server as secretary of state.
Citing unnamed sources, CNN reported that it was Strzok who signed the document that officially opened the FBI's investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, and that he changed key language on the recommendation of former FBI Director James Comey not to prosecute Clinton for her handling of classified information.
Sources told CNN that Comey's report initially described Hillary Clinton's handling of classified information as "grossly negligent," according to electronic records, and that Strzok changed the language to "extremely careless."
During Thursday’s hearing, Wray largely deflected questions from Republicans about whether he believes the Clinton investigation was tainted by impropriety, insisting that this issue is already being investigated by an independent inspector general. Wray said he would prefer to ask questions first, and then act.
"When those findings come to me I will take appropriate action if necessary," Wray said.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., asked the FBI director to relate his understanding of the prosecutorial standard for mishandling classified information.
"I believe the standard is gross negligence," Wray said. "I'll leave it to others to determine whether extremely careless and gross negligence are the same thing."
The hearing had been underway for more than three hours when Wray said the inspector general's recommendations could lead him to effect personnel or policy changes. But Wray also said he would consider reopening the investigation if the inspector general determines that would be appropriate.
Wray offered assurances, as well, that he would coordinate with the inspector general to see if he could provide Strzok's text messages to the committee, which it had asked for earlier in the week, without compromising the investigation.
Luke Hunt, a former FBI agent and a professor of criminal justice at Radford University, said in an email that FBI agents don't magically lose their political opinions when they join the agency. But he found it troubling that an agent had sent politically charged text messages. Noting that a single agent might not be able to sway a major investigation, Hunt said the text messages still give an appearance of impropriety.
"Any way you slice it, this sort of conduct simply looks bad," he said. "That said, these sorts of investigations are the epitome of collective effort and it is unlikely that significant investigative decisions and conclusions were made in a vacuum, including decisions about the language used to express conclusions about an investigation."
Hunt said that Mueller's quick dismissal of Strzok is an indication of the integrity of both Mueller and his investigation.
Alex Whiting, a former prosecutor and law professor at Harvard University, called Strzok's text messages a "non-story," and said those seizing on the story are desperate and attempting to discredit the investigation.
"With respect to the broader investigation, there is no evidence that the agent had any opportunity to shape any of the evidence in the case," he said in an email. "I can't comment on the reporting about the language in the Hillary Clinton investigation because I don't know what his precise role was, but I find it difficult to imagine that the language at issue was determined by this one agent alone."
Democrats struck a decidedly different tone than Republicans on Thursday in their questioning of Wray, focusing on a perceived need to protect the independence and integrity of the FBI and Special Counsel Mueller's investigation.
Using a large screen in the committee hearing room, ranking member Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., displayed tweets President Trump sent out Saturday in which he attacked the FBI and said it is in "tatters." After reading the tweets aloud during his opening remarks, Nadler urged Wray to stand up to President Trump.
"In this moment, Director Wray, your responsibility is not only to defend the bureau, but to push back against the president when he is so clearly wrong, both on the facts and as a matter of principle," Nadler said.
"When he claims that you should focus on 'crooked Hillary' instead of his closest associates, or when my colleagues argue for a new special counsel to do the same, it is your responsibility to remind us that, absent sufficient evidence of a crime, there is no investigation to which a second special counsel can be assigned," Nadler continued.
During a question-and-answer session, Wray spoke directly to the charge that the FBI is in tatters.
"What I can tell you is that the FBI that I see is tens of thousands of agents and analysts and staff working their tails off to keep Americans safe from the next terrorist attack, gang violence, child predators, spies from Russia, China, North Korea and Iran," Wray said. "The FBI that I see is tens of thousands of brave men and women who are working as hard as they can to keep people that they will never know safe from harm."
During his testimony, Wray told the committee that President Trump had not asked him for loyalty. When pressed by Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., about whether he’s had any contact with President Trump, Wray said he had not met alone with the president, but had accepted "maybe one" congratulatory call from Trump on the day he was sworn in as director.
Swalwell also asked Wray how he would memorialize any improper efforts by the president to influence an ongoing investigation. Wray responded by citing his commitment to the Constitution and the rule of law.
"There isn't a person on this planet that can get me to drop a properly predicated investigation, or start an investigation that's not properly predicated," Wray said.
Wray deflected questions from Democratic members of the committee about whether a sitting president can commit obstruction of justice, but answered when Swalwell asked if the president is above the law.
"I don't believe anybody's above the law,” Wray said.
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