Christopher A. Wray, the F.B.I. director, is confronting an extraordinary political storm on Wednesday in testifying before Congress, with Republicans who once defended the bureau now denouncing it as a weapon wielded against former President Donald J. Trump and his supporters.
Mr. Wray, who is appearing for the first time before the House Judiciary Committee since Republicans won the House, is most likely girding for the worst. The committee, led by Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, has said it “will examine the politicization” of the F.B.I. under Mr. Wray and Attorney General Merrick B. Garland.
In his opening statement, Mr. Jordan accused the bureau of a litany of abuses and urged Democratic lawmakers to join Republicans in blocking funding for it.
“I hope they will work with us in the appropriations process to stop the weaponization of the government against the American people and end this double standard that exists now in our justice system,” he said.
Anticipating the questioning to come, the top Democrat on the committee, Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, described the hearing as “little more than performance art.” He countered that Republicans had initiated an array of “baseless investigations” in a bid to “protect Donald Trump from the consequences of his actions.”
Stoked by the former president, congressional Republicans have adopted an increasingly caustic tone in their criticism of the country’s premier law enforcement agency, trying to damage its legitimacy and to undermine its standing with the public.
That criticism was once trained on the bureau’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia during the 2016 election. It is now focused on other flash points: Mr. Trump’s indictment in an inquiry into his handling of classified documents; the F.B.I.’s role in the search of his estate in Florida in August, as part of that inquiry; unfounded claims of a “two-tiered” system of justice favoring Democrats; and the Justice Department’s plea agreement with President Biden’s son, Hunter Biden.
So far, Republicans have not provided evidence that the F.B.I. and Mr. Wray are partisan, but they will try to catch him off balance and seed doubt about his motives.
Here is what to look for:
How will Mr. Wray respond?
Mr. Wray infuriated Mr. Trump, who viewed the director’s declaration of independence as disloyalty. But Mr. Wray has previously testified before Congress, steadfastly defending the F.B.I. as nonpartisan and taking fire on Twitter from Mr. Trump, while he was president.
Mr. Trump appointed Mr. Wray in 2017 after he fired James B. Comey, who as F.B.I. director had opened the Russia investigation. Since then, Mr. Wray has been under constant pressure from Republicans, who have simultaneously decried lawlessness in cities run by Democrats while attacking the F.B.I.’s role in political investigations.
In the past, Mr. Wray has responded to attacks by parsing his words carefully. In his opening statement, he forcibly defended the F.B.I. and declined to discuss open investigations, which is the policy of the Justice Department.
“I want to talk about the sheer breadth and impact of the work the F.B.I.’s 38,000 employees are doing, each and every day,” he said, citing the bureau’s work in addressing violent crime, fentanyl trafficking and efforts by China to steal trade secrets. “Because the work the men and women of the F.B.I. do to protect the American people goes way beyond the one or two investigations that seem to capture all the headlines.”
Republicans are going to war.
Mr. Trump and his supporters — as well as a vocal group of former F.B.I. officials who have aligned themselves with Republicans in Congress — believe the government is trying to silence and punish conservatives and see the bureau as a dangerous extension of that effort.
Case in point: In January, House Republicans voted to investigate law enforcement, creating the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government.
Republicans have claimed that the F.B.I. prodded Twitter to discriminate against their party as well as conservative or right-wing protesters at school board meetings and abortion clinics. Those issues have proved to be powerful drivers of voter turnout in the party’s pro-Trump base.
The subcommittee is led by Mr. Jordan, a close ally of Mr. Trump’s.
Last month, House Republicans on the Oversight Committee moved to hold Mr. Wray in contempt of Congress. But they called off a planned vote days later after the bureau said it would make available a document at the center of their dispute, involving an unverified allegation of bribery against Mr. Biden when he was vice president.
Mr. Trump and his supporters have promoted the idea that the Mar-a-Lago search was intended to neutralize his electoral chances.
Mr. Trump and his allies have raged at his indictment and the search of Mar-a-Lago in August, when F.B.I. agents descended on his residence and uncovered hundreds of classified documents.
The former president and his supporters have said that Mr. Trump declassified the records, meaning there was no misconduct to start, and that the search was an example of an uneven application of justice.
But so far no evidence has emerged that the documents were declassified or that the search, which was approved by a federal judge, was improper or politically motivated. In fact, the search unfolded after Mr. Trump repeatedly resisted the government’s requests that he return the material.
In recent weeks, Steven D’Antuono, the former top F.B.I. agent overseeing the documents case, testified behind closed doors before Mr. Jordan.
Asked if “anyone was motivated by animus” in the documents investigation, Mr. D’Antuono said no, according to a transcript of his testimony.
Hunter Biden reached a plea deal. Republicans hate it.
Under the deal with the Justice Department, Mr. Biden agreed to plead guilty to misdemeanor counts of failing to pay his 2017 and 2018 taxes on time and to be sentenced to probation. The department also said it would not prosecute him for buying a handgun in 2018 during a period when he was using drugs.
Republicans have assailed the deal, calling it too lenient, even though years of investigation by a Trump-appointed U.S. attorney found evidence to charge Mr. Biden only on the narrow tax and gun issues, rather than the wide-ranging international conspiracies peddled by Mr. Trump and his allies.
That U.S. attorney, David C. Weiss, who signed off on the agreement, has also come under fire. On Monday, Mr. Weiss rebutted a key element of testimony to Congress by an Internal Revenue Service official who said that Mr. Weiss had complained about being blocked from pursuing more serious charges.
Republicans will claim the Durham investigation showed that the F.B.I. was politically motivated in pursuing its Russia inquiry.
A final report by John H. Durham, the Trump-era special counsel, looked at the origins of the F.B.I.’s investigation into any ties Mr. Trump’s campaign had with Russia but found no evidence of politically motivated misconduct.
Still, Mr. Durham’s report has continued to fuel Republican claims of bias, with some accusing the F.B.I. of making moves motivated by political favoritism.
That charge almost immediately resurfaced during Mr. Wray’s hearing. Mr. Durham’s “ lengthy report reluctantly concluded that the F.B.I. quote, failed uphold its mission of strict fidelity to the law,” Representative Mike Johnson, Republican of Louisiana, said shortly after Mr. Wray’s testimony began.
Even as Mr. Trump and his loyalists had long insisted that Mr. Durham’s investigation would unearth a “deep state” conspiracy intended to damage him politically, Mr. Durham never charged high-level government officials.
Instead, Mr. Durham developed only two peripheral cases involving accusations of making false statements, both of which ended in acquittals, while using his report to cite flaws in the F.B.I.’s early investigative steps that he attributed to confirmation bias.
Will Americans trust the F.B.I.?
Republicans have claimed the Justice Department is “weaponized” against conservatives, but the allegations that were brought forth by aggrieved former F.B.I. officials have foundered.
Instead, Democratic investigators have uncovered that those former F.B.I. officials have trafficked in right-wing conspiracy theories, including about the Jan. 6, 2021, attack at the Capitol, and have received financial support from a top ally of Mr. Trump’s.
But the back-and-forth is having an impact. Mr. D’Antuono, in his testimony, rebuffed allegations of political bias and rejected calls to defund the bureau — but expressed concern about the future.
“In my opinion,” he said, “the more the American people hear about not trusting the F.B.I., it’s not a good day for this country.”