FBI chief pushes back after Trump claims reputation in 'tatters'

FBI Director Christopher Wray on Thursday morning defended the integrity of the FBI, calling its employees “decent people committed to the highest principles of integrity and respect” just days after President TrumpDonald John TrumpAl Gore: Trump has had 'less of an impact on environment so far than I feared' Trump claims tapes of him saying the 'n-word' don't exist Trump wanted to require staffers to get permission before writing books: report MORE tweeted that the bureau’s reputation is “in tatters.”

Pressed by House Judiciary Committee lawmakers on the merits of Trump’s tweet, Wray delivered a lengthy, steady-voiced defense of the bureaus agents, analysts and other staff — without mentioning the president by name.

“There is no shortage of opinions out there,” Wray said. “What I can tell you is the FBI I see is tens of of thousands of agents, analysts and staff working their tails off to keep America safe from the next terror attack. The FBI that I see ... is brave men and women working as hard as they can to keep people that they will never know safe from harm.”

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He acknowledged that the bureau makes mistakes “like everybody who’s human” — and that, when mistakes do happen, the bureau launches rigorous independent review and holds individuals accountable if appropriate.

Committee Republicans repeatedly pressed Wray on what they say is clear evidence of bias against President Trump at the bureau, citing the recent reassignment of an agent from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigative team over text messages he allegedly sent to a woman in which he criticized Trump and praised Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillicon Valley: FBI fires Strzok after anti-Trump tweets | Trump signs defense bill with cyber war policy | Google under scrutiny over location data | Sinclair's troubles may just be beginning | Tech to ease health data access | Netflix CFO to step down Signs grow that Mueller is zeroing in on Roger Stone Omarosa claims president called Trump Jr. a 'f--- up' for releasing Trump Tower emails MORE.

That agent, Peter Strzok, also worked on the investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of State, which did not result in charges.

Trump and his allies have used the stories about Strzok to bolster their argument that the FBI has held the president to a double standard and the Russia investigation is merely a politically motivated “witch hunt” against him.

Wray repeatedly declined to comment on either Strzok or the bureau’s handling of the Clinton investigation, citing an ongoing investigation by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz.

“I think it would not be appropriate for me to speculate about what the inspector general will or will not find,’’ Wray told Chairman Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteGoodlatte's son 'embarrassed' his father's 'grandstanding' got Strzok fired Top GOP lawmaker’s son gives maximum donation to Dem running for his seat Graham: DOJ official was 'unethical' in investigating Trump campaign because his wife worked for Fusion GPS MORE (R-Va.).

Lawmakers zeroed in on a report suggesting that Strzok was behind former FBI Director James Comey’s decision to characterize Clinton as “extremely careless” in her use of the server, rather than "grossly negligent," the language in his original draft of a statement announcing the bureau’s findings in that case.

Goodlatte and other Republicans pressed Wray on the standard for an espionage charge, suggesting that Strzok had sought to make the change to protect Clinton from indictment.

One standard for the charge is "gross negligence," but that statute has only been used once in its 99 years of existence. Comey in July explained his decision by arguing that “no reasonable prosecutor” would want Clinton to be the second.

“The question is how did this guy get on your supposed unbiased team in the first place when you consider this is the same guy investigating the Clinton server and had a hand in altering the FBI’s conclusion that the FBI was ‘grossly negligent’ so she could escape prosecution and stay in the race against Donald Trump?” demanded Rep. Steve ChabotSteven (Steve) Joseph ChabotVulnerable Republicans include several up-and-coming GOP leaders Dems eyeing smaller magic number for House majority Conservative group pledges .5 million for 12 House GOP candidates MORE (R-Ohio).

Goodlatte and other Republicans are calling for the appointment of a second special counsel to investigate the handling of the bureau’s decisionmaking in the Clinton probe.

Republicans also demanded that Wray turn over Strzok’s text messages. It is not against bureau policies for agents to hold a political opinion or to communicate those opinions with a romantic partner — which Rep. Darrell IssaDarrell Edward IssaDems eyeing smaller magic number for House majority Dems make big play for House in California Clinton maxes out to 19 Democratic House candidates MORE (R-Calif.) indicated Thursday suggested that “whatever Strzok did” went beyond simple texts to the woman in question, senior FBI lawyer Lisa Page.

Wray committed to working toward complying with the committee’s demands — noting that he had “no desire to frustrate” the committee — as long as it did not interfere with “a very active outside” investigation by the inspector general.

He noted that Strzok’s reassignment from Mueller’s team is “different than disciplinary actions.”