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Five key takeaways from FBI director Wray’s grilling at Capitol riot hearing

Griffin Connolly
·7-min read
FBI Director Christopher Wray has indicated violent right-wing extremism is one of the top threats facing the US. (Getty Images)
FBI Director Christopher Wray has indicated violent right-wing extremism is one of the top threats facing the US. (Getty Images)

FBI director Christopher Wray testified before Congress on Tuesday for the first time time since a pro-Trump mob attacked the US Capitol last month killing five people.

Mr Wray, who was tapped to lead the bureau by Donald Trump in 2017, faced nearly four hours of questions from senators about the backgrounds of the Capitol rioters, the rise of domestic white supremacist extremism in the US, and ongoing transparency issues stemming from the previous administration.

The FBI director noted that agents all over the country have executed hundreds of arrests, giving the agency a clearer picture of the right-wing elements comprising the most violent parts of the attack.

Mr Wray also fielded questions from GOP lawmakers about anti-government and far-left extremism in 2020 in cities such as Portland and Chicago.

Here are five takeaways from the hearing:

1. Capitol rioters included dozens of white supremacists and far-right militants

As the FBI continues making arrests and indicting rioters from the 6 January insurrection at the Capitol, biographical trends have emerged.

“Certainly the Capitol attack involved violent extremists,” Mr Wray testified on Tuesday, noting that those arrested so far come from a “variety of backgrounds.”

The ranks of the Capitol rioters include “quite a number of … militia violent extremists,” Mr Wray said. He highlighted the dozens of arrests of men who have been connected to right-wing extremist groups such as the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys.

The FBI has also arrested several “racial” extremists, Mr Wray said, people who were “specifically advocating for the superiority of the white race.”

Based on public court documents, nearly every rioter who has been arrested — whether they be a member of the Proud Boys, an adherent of the QAnon conspiracy theory, or simply disaffected lone actors — had one thing in common: they believed, wrongly, that Donald Trump was the rightful winner of the 2020 election.

Mr Wray broke the rioters into three separate categories: the first and largest group was “peaceful, maybe rowdy” protesters who didn’t break the law; the second group was protesters who got swept up in the spirit of the riot and committed low-level, non-violent offences; and the third group was a much smaller and more sinister collection of individuals — some of them armed or decked out in paramilitary gear including radio systems — who went to the Capitol to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s electoral victory, even if they had to use violence to do so.

2. The riot wasn’t a left-wing false flag operation

Mr Wray roundly rejected conspiracy theories — promoted by Republican Senate Judiciary member Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and others — that the Capitol riot was a false flag operation precipitated by “fake Trump protesters” and other malign actors not associated with the overwhelming pro-Trump sentiment of those who marched on the legislature that day.

Democratic Chairman Dick Durbin of Illinois asked the FBI director point-blank on Tuesday whether there were fake Trump protesters who stormed the Capitol, as Mr Johnson had speculated at a hearing last week with the four law enforcement officials in charge of securing the Capitol on the day of the riot.

“We have not seen evidence of that at this stage, sir,” Mr Wray said of claims that “Antifa” or other left-wing anarchists had been involved in the attack on the legislature.

Notably, Mr Wray did not place “Antifa” on the same level as extremists motivated by notions of racial superiority, such as white supremacists.

That’s despite the committee’s Republican ranking member, Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, spending most of his opening statement on Tuesday railing against the left-wing and anti-government extremist groups’ violent actions amid racial justice protests in the summer of 2020.

“The top threat we face from [domestic violent extremists] continues to be those we identify as Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremists (RMVEs), specifically those who advocate for the superiority of the white race,” Mr Wray said.

Mr Durbin sought to pre-empt Republicans’ “false equivalency” in his own opening statement: “We need to be abundantly clear that the white supremacists and other extremists are the most significant domestic terrorism threat facing the United States today,” he said.

3. Threat of domestic extremism on the same level as ISIS

The threat from domestic extremists — particularly right-wing extremists — has become so prominent in the last few years that in 2019 Mr Wray formally elevated the threat from such groups to the bureau’s top priority level, alongside ISIS and its network of homegrown terrorists, Mr Wray said on Tuesday.

The FBI director noted that the number of arrests made in 2020 against “racially motivated violent extremists who are what you would categorize as white supremacists” had roughly tripled since he took over the bureau command in 2017.

The FBI is currently working through roughly 2,000 domestic terrorism cases, he said. At a March 2019 congressional hearing he indicated that number was around just 850 ongoing cases.

“Let me make one thing clear — the FBI will not tolerate agitators and extremists who plan or commit violence, period. And that goes for violent extremists of any stripe,” Mr Wray told senators. “As I’ve said many times, we do not investigate ideology, but we focus on acts of violence and violations of federal law. And when we see those, when we see those, we will bring to bear the full weight of our resources, our experience and our partnerships.”

4. Both parties have longstanding gripes over bureau transparency

While senators’ questions on Tuesday centred mostly on the nature of the Capitol riot, what went wrong in the intelligence-sharing process that permitted the attack to catch the US Capitol Police off guard, and the hundreds of ongoing investigations and cases, members of both parties aggressively dressed down Mr Wray for his agency’s historic lack of transparency on several politically sensitive issues.

Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island lit into Mr Wray both in the committee room and outside it on Tuesday for withholding information about the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation from Democratic senators during Mr Trump’s presidency.

Mr Whitehouse accused Mr Wray — who has served in appointed roles in the George W Bush, Trump, and now Biden administrations — of a partisan double standard, saying he has consistently stonewalled Democratic queries, but then provided answers to Republican senators’ questions about the ongoing follow-up investigation into certain FBI and Justice Department officials’ conduct during the 2016 Trump-Russia operations.

Mr Whitehouse’s fury over Mr Wray’s stonewalling of congressional oversight bled outside the committee room on Tuesday.

“This is bulls***, to not get questions answered for years. And he knows perfectly well this is bulls***,” Mr Whitehouse told a reporter for NBC News.

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Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah, who has been on a years-long crusade to dismantle the FBI’s surveillance capacity, grew similarly frustrated by the FBI’s non-answers to questions about surveillance authority.

“Over the years, I mean literally, over the last 10 years, the entire 10 years I’ve served as a member of this committee and as a member of the United States Senate, I’ve been told fairly consistent answers under different FBI directors in different presidential administrations run by different parties,” Mr Lee said.

Whenever he has pressed the FBI about its processes and authority for collecting meta-data from cellular providers and other cyber areas, he has been met with the same response: “Trust us. Don’t worry,” he said, mimicking Mr Wray and other past bureau officials.

5. Wray was mum about probe into death of US Capitol Police officer

Several lawmakers, including Mr Grassley and Texas GOP Senator Ted Cruz, asked for a status update on the investigation into the death of USCP officer Brian Sicknick, who was initially reported to have been bludgeoned to death amid the Capitol riot. That has not been confirmed on the record by law enforcement.

Mr Grassley cited the “conflicting reports about” the cause of Mr Sicknick’s death and the considerable public interest in the case.

Mr Wray declined to provide details in the public setting of a live hearing.

“As soon as there [is] information that we could appropriately share, we want to be able to do that. But at the moment the investigation is still ongoing,” the director said.

Mr Wray added that the probe had not yet reached a point where he could even disclose the cause of death.

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