House Republicans teed off on FBI Director Christopher Wray on Wednesday as the party’s long-simmering angst over the law enforcement agency spilled into public view.
After months of vowing to go toe-to-toe with the Trump-appointed FBI director, Republicans were ready to give Wray an earful on everything from high-profile investigations to a controversial surveillance program and the broader GOP claim of politicization within the federal government.
It’s the first time Wray has appeared this year before the House Judiciary Committee, a panel that includes some of his biggest Republican antagonists. And it comes as some within the party are pushing to slash the bureau’s budget, including going after Wray’s salary directly, along with murmurs from the conference’s right flank about trying to boot him from office.
The hearing didn’t just shine a spotlight on the tensions between Republicans and Wray but further exposed looming divisions between the FBI director and Democrats on a soon-to-expire controversial surveillance program.
But there were some moments of levity. Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo) — who noted he doesn’t support defunding the FBI or cutting Wray’s salary — quipped to the director: “According to Wikipedia, you’re still a registered Republican. I hope you don’t change your party affiliation after this hearing is over.”
Here are some of the biggest moments:
GOP and Wray spar over Biden probes
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) sparked one of the most contentious exchanges in the hearing by questioning if Wray was trying to protect President Joe Biden and members of his family.
Gaetz read a WhatsApp message — obtained by the Ways and Means Committee — where Hunter Biden asked a Chinese businessman about a payment, adding that: “I will make certain that between the man sitting next to me and every person he knows and my ability to forever hold a grudge that you will regret not following my direction.” (Biden’s legal team has called the screenshots circulated online “complete fakes.”)
Gaetz asked Wray if that “sounds like a shakedown.” When Wray said he wouldn’t comment, Gaetz added: “You seem deeply uncurious about it. Almost suspiciously uncurious. Are you protecting the Bidens?”
The question sparked pushback from Wray, who said: “Absolutely not. The FBI has no interest in protecting anyone politically.”
The WhatApp message was released as part of a broader GOP investigation that includes allegations by an IRS whistleblower that the FBI and DOJ tried to hamper an investigation into Hunter Biden. (DOJ has denied this allegation.)
Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-Wis.) asked Wray if Joe Biden has taken payments from Burisma or other foreign companies — an allegation also at the center of the GOP investigation. No evidence has emerged that Biden took a bribe.
“I’m not going to be confirming or denying who is or isn’t under investigation or for what,” Wray added when pressed if Joe Biden was under investigation, referring questions to U.S. Attorney David Weiss who is leading the years-long Hunter Biden probe.
Wray: Mar-A-Lago search not a ‘raid’
Wray fielded most of his Trump-focused questions from Democrats on the committee, not Republicans.
Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) asked if he would characterize the FBI’s search of former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence for classified documents as a “raid.”
“I would not call it a raid. I would call it the execution of a lawful search warrant,” Wray said, referring to the search as following “standard procedure.”
And while Wray stressed he did not want to weigh in on an ongoing investigation, he offered a veiled criticism of the former president’s handling of classified documents under questioning from Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.).
“I will say that there are specific rules about where to store classified information and that those need to be stored in a SCIF, … and in my experience, ballrooms, bathrooms and bedrooms are not SCIFs,” Wray said.
Jordan knocked Biden’s handling of classified documents after the exchange: “Bedroom. Bathroom. Ballroom. How about a box in a garage? A beach house in Delaware. And the Biden Center. I don’t think those are SCIFs either.”
Meanwhile, Wray disclosed to Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) — who brought up threats made against individuals prosecuting Trump, that the FBI “did stand up a whole dedicated unit” to focus on threats against FBI employees and facilities due to an uptick in incidents.
Republicans did bring up Trump investigations — but it was the FBI’s probe into Russia’s 2016 election interference and the Trump campaign. Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) said that the “American people deserve to know how the FISA court … is being abused against a former president.” (A government watchdog did find violations in surveillance applications related to former Trump campaign aide Carter Page.)
Tiffany also asked Wray, “was Russia collusion a hoax” and if there was going to be “interference” in the 2024 election by the FBI. When Wray pressed back on the GOP lawmaker’s assertion that the FBI interfered in the 2016 election, Tiffany interjected: “You can be in denial if you want to. …That is exactly what happened.”
GOP spars with Wray on Jan. 6 investigation
Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and other Republicans on the committee sparred with Wray over the federal investigation in the wake of Jan. 6, when a group of the former president’s supporters breached the building.
Jordan, for example, asked Wray about conversations the FBI might have had with banks, including Bank of America, for transaction records for individuals in the Capitol — an area that Judiciary Committee Republicans have been probing.
Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), meanwhile, pushed Wray for details on the FBI’s investigation into pipe bombs found near the Capitol on the day of the attack and questioned when he was going to respond to their oversight letters on the probe. When Wray said he would work with the department to find out what information he can provide because it is an active investigation, Massie fired back: “We fund your department, so you need to provide that.”
Meanwhile, Cohen asked Wray about a frequently touted conspiracy theory in far-right circles that the Jan. 6 attack was incited by members of federal law enforcement. (Wray faced questions during Wednesday’s hearing about if FBI agents were in the Capitol on Jan. 6.)
“I will say that this notion that somehow the violence at the Capitol on January 6 was part of some operation orchestrated by FBI sources and agents is ludicrous and is a disservice to our brave, hardworking men and women,” Wray said.
Bipartisan warnings for Wray on surveillance reform
Though the hearing was stacked with largely partisan moments, it also emphasized the bipartisan committee support for reforming the warrantless surveillance program known on the Hill as Section 702 ahead of an end-of-the-year deadline for reauthorization.
The program is meant to target foreigners outside of the United States but has sparked angst because of its ability to also sweep in communications of U.S. citizens. And while the bulk of public focus in the 702 debate has been on the GOP’s souring relationship with the FBI, Democrats also sent their own warning to Wray.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) told Wray at the end of their back-and-forth that “the committee will look into the warrant requirement.” Jordan chimed in: “We sure will. We sure will.”
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) also questioned Wray about buying commercial information that includes Americans’ location data from data brokers, an issue that privacy advocates are hoping to fold into the year-end surveillance reform debate. Wray offered to give the committee a briefing on the FBI’s policies.
“This is a critically important issue for the American people to understand. We have bipartisan support around FISA reauthorization and the concerns we have, … and unless we really understand what measures the FBI is taking to ensure that people’s privacy is protected, I think it is going to be a very difficult reauthorization process,” Jayapal said.
After she was finished, Jordan added: “Well said. … You have friends over here who want to help you on that.”