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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 TrumpTrump renews attacks against Tester over VA nominee on eve of Montana rally Trump submits 2017 federal income tax returns Corker: Trump administration 'clamped down' on Saudi intel, canceled briefing 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 ClintonMueller's team asking Manafort about Roger Stone: report O'Rourke targets Cruz with several attack ads a day after debate GOP pollster says polls didn't pick up on movement in week before 2016 election 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 GoodlatteFusion GPS co-founder pleads the Fifth following House GOP subpoena House Judiciary chairman threatens to subpoena Rosenstein Fusion GPS co-founder will invoke 'constitutional rights not to testify': lawyers 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 ChabotElection Countdown: O'Rourke goes on the attack | Takeaways from fiery second Texas Senate debate | Heitkamp apologizes for ad misidentifying abuse victims | Trump Jr. to rally for Manchin challenger | Rick Scott leaves trail to deal with hurricane damage Credit union group to spend .8 million for vulnerable Dem, GOP incumbents Sessions calls on former colleagues to send drone legislation to Trump's desk 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 IssaMidterms in 2018 become most expensive in history Dems target small cluster of states in battle for House Painting of Trump with past GOP presidents hung up in White House 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.”