WASHINGTON — Countering strident attacks on his agency from the president who appointed him, FBI Director Christopher Wray on Thursday defended the tens of thousands of people who work with him and declared, "There is no finer institution."
Wray, who has led the agency just four months, fended off politically charged questions from lawmakers of both parties during a routine oversight hearing that was overtaken by questions about Hillary Clinton's emails and President Donald Trump's campaign. Citing pending investigations, he repeatedly declined to answer questions about either, while also refusing to give an opinion on whether Trump could be accused of obstructing justice.
But he did not hesitate to defend the nation's premier law enforcement agency following a weekend of Twitter attacks by Trump, who called the FBI a biased institution whose reputation is "in Tatters — worst in History!" and urged Wray to "clean house."
The outburst from the president followed a guilty plea from his former national security adviser for lying to the FBI and the revelation that an agent had been removed from a special team investigating the Trump campaign because of text messages seen as potentially anti-Trump.
Wray, who was nominated as FBI director by Trump, faced Republican criticism over perceived political bias in special counsel Robert Mueller's probe of possible Trump campaign ties to Russia during the 2016 presidential election and in the handling a year earlier of an FBI investigation Clinton's use of a private email server that ended without criminal charges.
When asked about Trump's harsh tweets, Wray rebutted him directly, saying, "My experience has been that our reputation is quite good."
Wray expressed pride in the agents, analysts and other personnel who he said were working to protect Americans. But he also conceded that agents do make mistakes and said there are processes in place to hold them accountable.
"There is no shortage of opinions out there, but 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," Wray said of the agency he has led for just four months. "The FBI that I see is tens of thousands of brave men and women working as hard as they can to keep people they will never know safe from harm."
The White House on Thursday tried to soften Trump's message, denying any discrepancy between his comments and those of the FBI director. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump agrees field agents are "appreciated and respected," but said the president's "issues are with the political leaders in the FBI under former director Comey, particularly those that played politics with the Hillary Clinton email probe."
The emphasis on the Clinton and Trump probes reflected how the FBI in the last two years has found itself entangled in American politics, with investigations focused on the Democratic presidential nominee and the Republican president and his successful campaign. Those investigations have transformed routine oversight hearings, like the one Thursday, into platforms for tense questions about the political leanings of an agency that prides itself on being removed from partisan consideration.
Wray's defense of the FBI came after the committee's chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said he was concerned by reports that Peter Strzok, a veteran counterintelligence agent involved in the Clinton investigation, was removed from Mueller's team last summer following the discovery of text messages seen as potentially anti-Trump.
"Even the appearance of impropriety will devastate the FBI's reputation," Goodlatte said.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, top Democrat on the House Judiciary panel, predicted Trump's attacks on the FBI will only grow louder as Mueller continues investigating. "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 told Wray.
Wray's tenure as the new FBI chief would be difficult even without the intense scrutiny of the Russia investigation. Since he was sworn in on Aug. 2, the U.S. has experienced two of the deadliest shootings in its modern history and an attack on a bike path in Manhattan that officials have said was terrorism.
Trump's weekend tweets created a fresh dilemma for Wray. With his bosses, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Sessions' deputy, Rod Rosenstein, staying publicly silent, it fell to Wray to defend the agency. But FBI directors traditionally have been low-key and stoic — with Wray's predecessor, James Comey, a notable exception.
And Trump's firing of Comey while he led the Russia probe shows what can happen to a director who antagonizes the president.