President Trump criticized FBI Director Christopher A. Wray on Tuesday, saying he gave a “ridiculous answer” during congressional testimony last week when he declined to characterize an FBI investigation of Trump campaign advisers in 2016 as “spying.’’
Wray’s testimony to a Senate panel stood in contrast with comments made by Attorney General William P. Barr at a hearing last month at which he told lawmakers that “spying did occur” during the investigation into Russian election interference and called it “a big deal.”
As he prepared to depart the White House on Tuesday, Trump was asked whether he retained confidence in Wray, given his answer.
“Well, I didn’t understand his answer because I thought the attorney general answered it perfectly,” Trump said. “So I certainly didn’t understand that answer. I thought it was a ridiculous answer.”
The FBI declined to comment on Trump’s remarks.
At last week’s hearing, Wray was asked by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) whether he agreed with Barr’s characterization of “spying.”
“That’s not the term I would use,” said Wray, a Trump appointee who took over leadership of the FBI in 2017.
In his testimony, Wray tried to make clear that although he did not use the term “spying” with regard to the Trump investigation, he was not picking a fight with those who do.
“There are lots of people who have different colloquial phrases,” Wray said. “To me, the key question is making sure it’s done by the book, consistent with our lawful authorities.”
Wray said he had not seen any evidence that illegal surveillance was conducted on individuals associated with Trump’s campaign.
He also urged lawmakers to wait for the findings from Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, who is expected to issue a report in a month or two about the origins of the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign, and the law enforcement tools that were used, including Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court orders.
Republicans have accused FBI leaders of using flimsy or false claims to get court surveillance orders on former Trump adviser Carter Page in 2016 and 2017. They have also accused senior FBI officials of political bias against Trump. Current and former FBI officials have defended the agency’s actions, saying they were obligated to investigate allegations of wrongdoing.
While talking to reporters Tuesday, Trump also praised Barr for tapping John H. Durham, the U.S. attorney for the District of Connecticut, to investigate the origins of the special counsel’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Trump said he had not asked Barr to make the move but said, “I think it’s a great thing that he did it.”
Barr picked Durham in recent weeks to work on the review, which is designed to ensure that the U.S. government’s “intelligence collection activities” related to the Trump campaign were “lawful and appropriate,” a person familiar with the decision said.
Trump has repeatedly characterized efforts to investigate possible coordination between Russia and his campaign as a coup attempt.
“It was the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the people of this country, and you know what, I am so proud of our attorney general, that he is looking into it,” he said Tuesday. “I think it’s great.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters Tuesday that his panel would postpone plans to probe the origins of the Russia investigation now that Durham had been appointed.
“Seems like a good choice. Seems to have a reputation of being fair-minded,” Graham said. “So what I want to do is, now he’s in this thing, is back off, listen to Horowitz, and try to find out what can we do to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Even inside the FBI, however, some officials were confused about what precisely Durham would be investigating, and how that might fit with the inspector general’s inquiry and another inquiry being led by U.S. Attorney John Huber in Utah, people familiar with the matter said.
When Attorney General Jeff Sessions named Huber to investigate a host of GOP concerns, he said the U.S. attorney would be working “in cooperation” with the inspector general, but some people who have been interviewed by investigators with the inspector general’s office have seen no obvious indication of Huber’s involvement, people familiar with the matter said.
One of them said Huber has been focused mostly on matters related to 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. While Durham’s work could overlap with the inspector general’s, the person said, Durham has more powers as a U.S. attorney — including the ability to charge people with crimes, however unlikely that might be.
Two people familiar with the matter said Durham is focused on the origins of the investigation during the 2016 presidential campaign, rather than the work Mueller and others did after Inauguration Day.
Durham’s review is examining decisions made at the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence during and after the campaign, and the heads of those agencies have been assisting the work since Durham was assigned the task last month, according to people familiar with the matter.
Trump appeared to take another swipe at Wray earlier this week on Twitter.
In a late-night tweet on Sunday, Trump quoted Tom Fitton, the leader of the conservative group Judicial Watch, saying that the “FBI had no leadership.”
“The Director is protecting the same gang that tried to overthrow the President through an illegal coup,” Fitton was quoted as saying in Trump’s tweet, which referenced an interview he did with Lou Dobbs of the Fox Business Network the previous week.
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.