WASHINGTON — FBI Director Christopher Wray defended his agency’s integrity and independence in response to skeptical questioning Thursday from Republicans who repeatedly suggested that its personnel are biased against President Trump.
Wray spent the morning being grilled at a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee about how FBI personnel — particularly a senior counterintelligence agent now the subject of an internal ethics investigation — handled sensitive probes of Trump and his former political rival, Hillary Clinton.
The agent, Peter Strzok, was removed in July from the investigation being run by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is looking into possible coordination between Trump associates and Russian agents during last year’s election.
Strzok, the top agent on that probe, was removed after supervisors learned he had exchanged pro-Clinton and anti-Trump texts with a senior FBI lawyer with whom he had an affair, according to people familiar with the matter.
Strzok’s alleged conduct is now the subject of a probe by the Justice Department’s inspector general. Lawmakers tried to make Wray explain exactly what Strzok’s role was in the Trump and Clinton investigations, but Wray declined to provide an answer, citing the ongoing investigation.
The revelations about Strzok prompted Trump to tweet this past weekend that the FBI’s reputation was in tatters.
Asked by the panel’s senior Democrat, Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, whether that was true, Wray delivered a lengthy defense of the bureau.
“Congressman, there is no shortage of opinions out there. What I can tell you is that the FBI I see is tens of thousands of agents, analysts, and staff working their tails off keeping Americans safe,’’ Wray said. ‘‘The FBI that I see is people, decent people, committed to the highest principles of dignity and professionalism and respect. . . . Now do we make mistakes? You bet we make mistakes, just like everybody who’s human makes mistakes.’’
He said that once the inspector general’s review of FBI conduct has concluded, ‘‘we will hold our folks accountable, if that’s appropriate.’’
Republicans said Wray needed to prove to them that the FBI was proceeding without picking political favorites.
‘‘It does appear to me that, at the very least, the FBI’s reputation as an impartial, nonpolitical agency has come into question,’’ said the panel’s chairman, Representative Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican. ‘‘Even the appearance of impropriety will devastate the FBI’s reputation.’’
Goodlatte and other Republicans are pressing the Justice Department to appoint a second special counsel to investigate the FBI’s handling of Clinton-related matters, including an investigation into her use of a private e-mail server when she was secretary of state.
Nadler warned Wray that he was under attack from Republicans, and urged him to publicly rebut criticism from the president.
“I predict that these attacks on the FBI will grow louder and more brazen as the special counsel does his work and the walls close in around the president,’’ Nadler said. ‘‘Your job requires you to have the courage in these circumstances to stand up to the president.’’
Much of the early questioning at the hearing concerned Strzok, a senior agent who played a central role in the FBI’s Russia investigation until late July, when Mueller learned of the messages and removed him from the case.
Strzok’s communications with senior FBI lawyer Lisa Page are now being investigated by the Justice Department’s inspector general. Page had also worked on Mueller’s team, but she left that post two weeks before Strzok’s departure for what officials have said were unrelated reasons.