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FBI Director Faces Lawmakers


FBI Director Christopher Wray is on Capitol Hill at this hour. Wray is appearing for his first oversight hearing since his confirmation four months ago. It is a difficult time for the FBI. President Trump has gone after the agency on numerous occasions. And last week, he tweeted that the FBI's reputation is in, quote, "tatters." So lawmakers are now asking if politics are affecting the FBI's law enforcement decisions. Joining us now is NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Hey, Carrie.


MARTIN: So Christopher Wray, the FBI director, I understand sent out a message of support to employees this week. Is this how bad it's become, that FBI agents need a pep talk?

JOHNSON: Well, Rachel, it's been kind of a tough 18 months. Remember, this all started with criticism of Chris Wray's predecessor, Jim Comey, for how much public speaking he did before the election about Hillary Clinton's emails. Then, remember, the president - President Trump fired Jim Comey in May. And Trump's hits just have - keep on coming, a barrage of insults against his own Justice Department and FBI this year, calling the Russia investigation a witch hunt, saying the Justice Department has gone soft on Hillary Clinton. So morale at DOJ and the FBI is not great. Earlier this week, Christopher Wray stepped in with his own message to employees, telling them he respected their work. There was important work to do. Keep calm and tackle hard, Chris Wray said.

MARTIN: But what's so interesting about the president's tweet is now it's his guy who's at the FBI. It's Chris Wray. I mean, you mention President Trump famously called Jim Comey, who he clearly didn't like, he called him a grandstander, a showboat. His replacement, Chris Wray, is cut from a different cloth, though.

JOHNSON: Yeah. Chris Wray is a very understated guy. He doesn't like to make headlines. He comes into work, works long hours and then goes home. No tweeting from the current FBI director. But it's never a good thing to be under attack from your own president. I've talked with friends of Chris Wray. They point out he worked at the Justice Department after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks - a very difficult period. So he's calm under pressure, and the bottom line, they say, is this is not going to distract from the FBI's important work. That includes, Rachel, the investigation of Russian interference in last year's presidential election.

MARTIN: Yeah. OK. So speaking of that investigation, this week some Republicans - some prominent Republicans - signaled that they want to investigate the investigation. They're pointing to these emails and messages sent by investigators who worked on the Russia probe with Robert Mueller, claiming that they had a partisan bent. And Mueller apparently agreed because he took one of them off the investigation, right?

JOHNSON: Yeah. There's an ongoing investigation by the Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz as to whether certain decisions at DOJ were politicized last year. Wrapped into that investigation are these text messages a senior FBI official, who worked on both the Hillary Clinton matter and the Russia probe, may have sent to a colleague of his that had a political bent. That investigation's underway, but while it was happening, Robert Mueller, the special counsel, decided to remove this investigator from the Russia probe. He's now working in kind of a backwater office at the FBI.

This is all part of a longer campaign by prominent Republicans to try to discredit Robert Mueller, which is odd, Rachel, because Robert Mueller is a Republican himself, and he's been hired by Republican and Democratic presidents over the years to do very important work. That said, I'm talking to folks close to the investigation who say this campaign against Robert Mueller and the Russia probe has stepped up, in part because it's really striking a nerve right now.

MARTIN: Right. The special counsel team has already charged four people tied to Donald Trump's campaign; two have pleaded guilty. So is that - is the fact that they're striking a nerve, that's to account for the pushback that the president and the White House are giving?

JOHNSON: I think that - so we've got four charges so far this year. The special counsel's only been working for a matter of months, but the new FBI director needs to be undeterred and he needs to have some answers today as to what he's doing within his agency.

MARTIN: All right. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reporting this morning for us. Thanks so much, Carrie.

JOHNSON: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF L'INDECIS' "LE SUD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.