Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, who is under investigation by the FBI, was in the unusual position Thursday of questioning the director of the agency, Christopher Wray, as part of congressional oversight hearings.
On Thursday Wray appeared before the committee and was questioned on several ongoing investigations by lawmakers including Gaetz.
Gaetz has strenuously denied the trafficking allegations, claiming that they are part of a plot against him.
On Thursday Gaetz questioned Wray about the FBI’s investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, an issue Republicans have seized on in recent weeks.
The claim was pushed by Donald Trump and allies in the early months of the pandemic, but was initially dismissed by the World Health Organization and experts. In recent months it has gained renewed credibility.
“I have to be careful not to discuss specific investigations,” Wray replied. He continued: “There are differences of view within the intelligence community about the origins of the coronavirus and we’re taking a deeper dive on that subject.”
During congressional testimony on Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray defended the agency’s actions leading up to the Capitol siege and said it sees the riot as an act of domestic terrorism.
Wray is among several current and former law enforcement officials who testified or are slated to testify before Congress about the siege and how to prevent such an event from happening again.
Here are the biggest takeaways from Wray’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee:
The FBI alerted law enforcement partners about the threat of violence before the siege
In what was perhaps the most significant revelation from the hearing, Wray told lawmakers that the FBI transmitted an intelligence document warning of potential violence at the Capitol to the Capitol Police, the metropolitan police, and other law enforcement partners before the January 6 attack.
The report in question came from the bureau’s Norfolk, Virginia field office on January 5 and detailed how pro-Trump insurrectionists were planning for “war” at the US Capitol the next day, when Congress convened to formalize then president-elect Joe Biden’s 2020 election win.
Last week, former Capitol Police Chief Steve Sund testified that he was not aware of the FBI’s report. The acting metropolitan police chief, Robert Contee, testified that the report came in an email, adding that one would think such a stark warning would “would warrant a phone call or something.”
But on Tuesday, Wray told lawmakers that the FBI sent the report to its partners via three different avenues within an hour after it was issued: an email to the Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF), a verbal briefing at the Washington, DC, field office and FBI headquarters which included DC police, and a posting to the law enforcement portal.
“As to why the information didn’t flow to all the people within various departments … I don’t have a good answer for that,” Wray said.
Wray poured cold water on Republican conspiracy theories
A slew of GOP lawmakers, activists, and media personalities have suggested in recent weeks that the Capitol attack was not carried out by Trump supporters but by far-left, “antifa” actors posing as Trump backers.
Last week, Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin made headlines when he cited during a Senate hearing an article written by a far-right analyst who said, without evidence, that people “whom I presumed to be Antifa or other leftist agitators” were responsible for the siege. The piece went on to falsely claim that the Trump supporters in the crowd were largely peaceful and law-abiding protestors.
“I’d really recommend everyone on the committee read this account,” Johnson said.
On Tuesday, Wray, a registered Republican who served in the Bush administration’s DOJ, slapped down the claim that far-left activists infiltrated the Capitol siege to stoke violence.
“We have not to date seen any evidence of anarchist violent extremists or people subscribing to antifa in connection with the 6th,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we’re not looking, and we’ll continue to look, but at the moment we have not seen that.”
Wray also noted that there was no evidence that there were “fake Trump supporters” in the mob that stormed the Capitol, as Johnson and others have insinuated.
The FBI sees the insurrection as domestic terrorism
“That attack, that siege, was criminal behavior, plain and simple,” Wray said in his opening statement. “It was behavior that we, the FBI, view as domestic terrorism.”
That designation places the insurrectionists “on the same level with ISIS and homegrown violent extremists,” Wray added.
Law enforcement officials have repeatedly emphasized that they are throwing all their resources into prosecuting those responsible for planning and executing the riot, which resulted in five deaths and scores of injuries.
To date, the FBI has arrested nearly 300 people related to the Capitol siege, which sent lawmakers running for shelter and delayed for hours the certification of Biden’s victory.
At a January 12 news conference, Michael Sherwin, the acting US attorney in Washington, DC, told reporters that investigators were focusing on “significant felony cases tied to sedition and conspiracy.” He added that the “scope and scale” of the Capitol-riot investigation was unprecedented in FBI and DOJ history.
Domestic terrorism has been ‘metastasizing across the country for a long time now’
Speaking to Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Dick Durbin, Wray said the siege on January 6 “was not an isolated event.”
“The problem of domestic terrorism has been metastasizing across the country for a long time now and it is not going away any time soon,” he said.
The bureau has stepped up its focus on domestic terrorism in recent years. In 2019, it issued an internal bulletin warning that conspiracy theories, like the far-right QAnon theory, pose a significant domestic terrorism threat.
“The FBI assesses anti-government, identity based, and fringe political conspiracy theories very likely motivate some domestic extremists, wholly or in part, to commit criminal and sometimes violent activity,” the document said. “The FBI further assesses in some cases these conspiracy theories very likely encourage the targeting of specific people, places, and organizations, thereby increasing the likelihood of violence against these targets.”
Wray highlighted his agency’s focus on the matter during his congressional testimony on Tuesday, saying the FBI has been “sounding the alarm on it for a number of years now.”
“I’ve been sounding the alarm about domestic terrorism since, I think, just about my first month on the job when I first started appearing up on the Hill, and I’ve spoken about it, and in maybe a dozen different congressional hearings,” he added. “So whenever we’ve had the chance, we’ve tried to emphasize this is a top concern and remains so for the FBI.”
Wray confirmed there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud days after Trump lied about it again
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker asked Wray if he agreed with then Attorney General William Barr’s announcement last year that the DOJ had not uncovered evidence of widespread voter fraud in the November election.
“I agree with Attorney General Barr,” Wray said.
“We are not aware of any widespread evidence of voter fraud, much less that it would have affected the outcome in the presidential election,” he added.
The statement confirmed what multiple government agencies, bipartisan experts, and election officials have said for months: despite the coronavirus pandemic and a record level of early voting and voting by mail, the 2020 election was the safest in US history.
Wray’s testimony wasn’t surprising, but it was noteworthy given that Trump spent much of his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Sunday recycling lies about the election.
“The election was rigged,” he said at one point. At another, he teased a 2024 presidential run, saying he “may even decide to beat [Democrats] for a third time,” implying that he won the 2020 race.
“Had we had a fair election, the results would’ve been much different,” he said later on.