FBI Director Christopher Wray appeared for the first time in front of the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday where the FBI's handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation was still fresh in the minds of many Republicans on the committee.
Currently, the Department of Justice Inspector General is involved in an exhaustive review of the FBI's handling of that investigation, including looking at issues of political bias, impartiality and whether the agency's leadership followed due process.
Over the course of nearly four hours, Wray was repeatedly asked to comment on whether the FBI inappropriately handled the Clinton matter and whether Wray's predecessor, James Comey, had followed due process in not recommending charges against the former Secretary of State. Wray carefully avoided wading into political matters, insisting it would be inappropriate to speculate on what the inspector general's investigation may or may not find.
"Whether or not ... decisions were made in that investigation that were the product of any improper considerations is precisely what the outside, independent inspector general is investigating," Wray stated. He continued that if the IG discovers any impropriety during that investigation, Wray stated that he "won't hesitate to take appropriate action based on the evidence."
Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) pressed Wray to outline the types of actions would be appropriate if the IG review turns up evidence of wrongdoing.
"I would not rule out anything appropriate that would be in response to the inspector general's finding," Wray stated, noting that his response could range from anything from changing FBI policies to personnel decisions or "follow-up" the agency would need to engage in.
Asked directly if that follow-up could mean reopening the investigation into Secretary Clinton, Wray explained that the FBI would apply the same standard to the Clinton investigation as any other.
"If we find, for example, new information or new evidence that would cause us to want to reopen an investigation, assuming we don't have a statute of limitation problem or something like that, that is something we would consider," he said.
Wray added that they would also consider reopening the investigation if the inspector general "suggested that is something that would be appropriate."
JUDICIARY CHAIRMAN EXPECTS FBI AGENT'S ANTI-TRUMP TEXTS BY JANUARY
Despite Wray's numerous statements defending the independence and impartiality of the FBI, a number of Republican lawmakers said they agreed with Donald Trump's assessment of the agency. Earlier this week, Trump tweeted that after Comey's tenure and the Clinton investigation, the agency's reputation is "in Tatters."
"I had always thought that the FBI had a stellar reputation," said Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas). "Here in Congress, I don't have that belief any longer."
The Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) also agreed that the FBI's reputation "as an impartial, non-political agency has been called into question recently." The chairman pointed to the "deeply troubling" reports of political bias among career agents, lawyers and members of Robert Mueller's special counsel investigation.
In recent days, it was reported that agent Peter Strzok was reassigned from Mueller's team of investigators after an Inspector General investigation discovered he sent anti-Trump text messages to his mistress, Lisa Page, a Department of Justice lawyer also working for Mueller. Strzok was also a top agent involved in the FBI's investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server.
"Investigations must not be tainted by individuals imposing their own personal political opinions," Goodlatte stressed. "Even the appearance of impropriety will devastate the FBI's reputation."
Currently, no one on the committee or in the public has access to Strzok's text messages which emerged as part of the independent inspector general's investigation into the handling of the Clinton probe. But Goodlatte and other members of his committee are pushing hard to get that information.
Recently, Republicans on the Judiciary Committee sent a letter to the Department of Justice requesting access to the 1.2 million documents the inspector general is assessing in the review of the Clinton investigation, including approximately 10,000 text messages relevant to Strzok's removal from Mueller's investigation. According to Goodlatte, the Department of Justice agreed to cooperate and give the committee a "fulsome response" to its request for documents by January 15.
FBI Director Wray said he and his agency "intend to be fully cooperative with both this committee and the inspector general" in fulfilling the request for the text messages and other relevant documents.
WRAY ASSURES DEMOCRATS OF FBI INDEPENDENCE, SAYS AGENTS UNFAZED BY TRUMP CRITICISM
Republicans were not the only ones on the committee to raise questions about the FBI's independence. Democrats pushed Director Wray to assert his own independence from Donald Trump who has repeatedly made controversial statements criticizing the FBI writ large and attacking the special counsel as a "witch hunt" against him and his administration.
A number of Democrats were outraged over Trump's criticism of the agency in a tweet. Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas) wanted to know whether the president's tweets had hurt the morale of the FBI agents serving in all 50 states, or hurt their standing among 80 partner nations around the world.
"The agents, analysts and staff of the FBI are big boys and girls. We understand that we will take criticism from all corner and we're accustomed to that." Wray said, adding, "My experience has been that our reputation is quite good."
The ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.) raised concerns specifically about whether Wray had come under the same political pressure from the White House as his predecessor. In June, James Comey testified to lawmakers that Trump had met with him privately to ask him for "loyalty."
"I have never been asked by the president to take any kind of loyalty oath," Wray told the committee. "My loyalty is to the Constitution, to the laws of this country and to the good...people of America."
Wray further asserted that even though Trump once told reporters that the FBI director "really reports directly to the president of the United States," he had never been asked to circumvent the attorney general and report directly to the president.
Moreover, Wray affirmed the independence of Robert Mueller's special counsel, telling lawmakers, "Since I've been on the job, there has been no effort that I've seen, going forward here, any effort to interfere with special counsel Mueller's investigation."
Throughout the hearing, Wray defended the reputation of the FBI and the 37,000 men and women who serve the agency while trying to rebuild the public's confidence in the agency's impartiality.
"There is no finer institution than the FBI and no finer people than the men and women who work there and are its very beating heart," Wray told the committee. "I think the best way that I can validate the trust of the American people in the FBI is to ensure that we bring that same level of professionalism and integrity and objectivity and adherence to process in everything we do."