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 TrumpUkraine's president compares UN to 'a retired superhero' Collins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid Heller won't say if Biden won election 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 ClintonHeller won't say if Biden won election Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll GOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 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 GoodlatteThe job of shielding journalists is not finished Bottom line No documents? Hoping for legalization? Be wary of Joe Biden 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 ChabotLiberal group launches campaign urging Republicans to support Biden's agenda Blinken grilled in first hearing since Afghanistan withdrawal Bipartisan group of lawmakers call on Biden to ensure journalists safe passage out of Afghanistan 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 IssaHow lawmakers aided the Afghan evacuation Dozens of Sacramento students remain in Afghanistan after US pullout, district says Seven San Diego-area families evacuated from Afghanistan after summer trip abroad 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.”