FBI Director Christopher Wray on Thursday offered a sharp defense of the bureau against strident criticism leveled by President Donald Trump, saying FBI employees are “respected and appreciated” by law enforcement agencies around the country and the world.
Wray’s comments, made during testimony before a congressional panel, came in response to a tweet by Trump on Sunday that former FBI Director James Comey had left the bureau’s reputation in “tatters.”
“After years of Comey, with the phony and dishonest Clinton investigation (and more), running the FBI, its reputation is in Tatters - worst in History! But fear not, we will bring it back to greatness,” Trump tweeted.
WATCH: FBI Chief Defends Agency Following Sharp Criticism by Trump
While not directly refuting the tweet, Wray responded with an impassioned defense of the bureau whose employees are “working their tails off” to keep Americans safe from terrorism and other threats.
“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,” Wray told members of the House Judiciary Committee.
“The FBI that I see is respected and appreciated by our partners in federal, state and local law enforcement, in the intelligence community, by our foreign counterparts, both law enforcement and national security, and something like 200 countries around the globe,” he said.
Wray’s testimony before the judiciary committee marked his first congressional appearance since he was sworn in as FBI director in August. Trump named Wray to the position after firing Comey in May over the bureau’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, reacting to Wray’s comments, sought to play down Trump’s latest assault on the FBI, saying 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.”
Mueller removes agent from team
Trump’s tweet came after the disclosure over the weekend that Special Counsel Robert Mueller had removed a senior FBI investigator from his team because of a series of anti-Trump text messages.
Wray confirmed that the FBI in coordination with Mueller’s office had withdrawn Peter Strzok from the Special Counsel’s team of investigators and reassigned him to the bureau’s human resources department. Strzok, a former deputy to the assistant FBI director for counterintelligence, has led key bureau investigations.
As part of the FBI’s 2016 investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server, he interviewed Clinton and reportedly changed the language in a statement exonerating Clinton. After joining Mueller’s team this year, he oversaw interviews with Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser who pleaded guilty last week to lying to the FBI.
The FBI’s handling of the Clinton email server investigation is being examined by the Justice Department’s Inspector General.
Agents rebuke Trump
Trump and his Republican allies seized on the news as yet another piece of evidence that Mueller is leading a politically biased probe by a team of anti-Trump prosecutors. Mueller is a registered Republican but several key members of his team have made donations to the campaigns of Democratic candidates.
“Report: “ANTI-TRUMP FBI AGENT LED CLINTON EMAIL PROBE” Now it all starts to make sense!” Trump tweeted on Sunday.
Trump’s criticism of the FBI drew sharp rebuke from current and former FBI agents.
“FBI Agents are dedicated to their mission; suggesting otherwise is simply false,” Thomas O’Connor, president of the FBI Agents Association, said in a statement on Sunday.
Former Special Agent David Gomez said many agents saw Trump’s tweet as an assault on their integrity.
“The fact that one agent may have engaged in behavior that was detrimental to the reputation of the FBI does not indict the entire population of agents,” Gomez said.
Republicans support Trump
The brewing controversy over Strzok overshadowed much of Wray’s testimony.
Republican members of the panel said they agreed with Trump’s assessment of the FBI, saying the bureau’s handling of the Clinton email investigation and a series of missteps by Comey had inflicted severe damage to its reputation.
“While some will take umbrage with President Trump’s assertion, it does appear to me that, at the very least, the FBI’s reputation as an impartial, non-political agency has been called into question recently,” said Bob Goodlatte, the committee’s Republican chairman.
But Democrats took Wray to task for not standing up to 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 clearly wrong, both on the facts and as a matter of principle,” said Jerold Nadler, the committee’s ranking Democratic member.