FBI Director Christopher Wray on Tuesday debunked right-wing conspiracy theories about the Capitol insurrection, defended the bureau’s intelligence-sharing ahead of the attack and defined the categories of alleged rioters law enforcement is looking at.
Wray appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee for nearly three hours of testimony Tuesday, his first appearance before Congress since the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
Here are five takeaways from Wray’s testimony:
FBI intel ahead of Jan. 6 was ‘more than just an email’
There has been lots of bickering among law enforcement since the Jan. 6 Capitol attack about whether the authorities who should have been aware of the threat against Congress were properly prepared for that day. Wray offered his own defense of the FBI’s work on Tuesday, pointing to a Jan. 5 report out of the FBI’s Norfolk, Virginia office flagging internet chatter about attacking Congress. The FBI communicated the report to relevant authorities multiple ways, Wray said at several points in the hearing. “It’s more than just an email,” he told Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). The bureau also uploaded the report to a law enforcement database and mentioned the intelligence during an in-person briefing with law enforcement partners, Wray said.
Still, questions remain about whether the FBI did enough to flag the threat, especially given the volume of online chatter ahead of Jan. 6.
“Assuming for a moment there was only a Norfolk [situational information report] within the bureau then we’re talking more about a systematic failure of identifying, creating and pushing out analysis within the bureau,” the extremism researcher Seamus Hughes observed.
Neither ‘antifa’ nor ‘fake Trump supporters’ were behind behind the insurrection
Early on in the hearing, Wray debunked a conspiracy theory that has spread like wildfire in right-wing circles, including among some members of Congress. The FBI director bluntly told Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) that the agency has not seen any evidence of “fake Trump supporters” organizing the deadly Capitol insurrection.
Throughout the hearing, Wray found himself doubling down on his assertion that the FBI has not found evidence of antifa staging the Capitol attack when Republican senators, such as Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), equated extremism with antifa and left-wing activists by repeatedly citing protests last summer against police brutality.
Wray reiterated that the FBI is “equal opportunity” in examining extremism of “all stripes,” regardless of ideology.
The “antifa” false flag conspiracy got a major boost last week when Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) read from a Federalist article alleging that the insurrection was staged by “agents provocateurs.”
Law enforcement is looking at ‘three groups’ of insurrectionists
Wray outlined three groups of people the FBI found to be behind the Capitol insurrection:
- “Peaceful, maybe rowdy” protesters who didn’t violate the law.
- People who intended to partake in peaceful protests, but got carried away with “the motive or emotion.” Wray said this group engaged in low-level criminal behavior, such as trespassing Capitol grounds, but did not go so far as to breach the actual Capitol building.
- “The smallest but most serious group” of people who breached the Capitol, Wray said, and endangered law enforcement officers and lawmakers. Wray said that the violence this particular group engaged in is what the FBI would consider domestic terrorism.
There was no widespread voter fraud in 2020
The FBI is among the various law enforcement entities with the power to investigate alleged voter and election fraud, so Wray would be in a position to decisively debunk the so-called “big lie” from Donald Trump and others that Trump’s 2020 loss was the result of widespread fraud. And Wray did just that on Tuesday.
After expressing his agreement with then-Attorney General Bill Barr’s statement that there was no evidence of fraud on a level that would have affected the 2020 results, Wray went further in response to questions from Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ).
“We are not aware of any widespread evidence of voter fraud, much less that would have affected the outcome in the presidential election,” he said.
Dems pushed Wray on extremist rhetoric
The line of questioning from Democrats seemed to highlight the role of extremist rhetoric in fomenting the Capitol attack, which had also been central to the House impeachment managers’ charge against former President Donald Trump’s role as inciter-in-chief last month during the Senate impeachment trial.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), in one instance, prodded Wray to address how the promotion of QAnon conspiracy theories by prominent elected officials and lawmakers had contributed to the deadly insurrection, but the FBI director would not formally condemn or acknowledge the theories as playing a central role in contributing to the riot.
“We are concerned about the QAnon phenomenon, which we view as a sort of loose sort of set of conspiracy theories,” Wray said.
Last month, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) was notably stripped of her committee assignments over endorsing violence against fellow lawmakers and otherwise promoting baseless conspiracy theories.
Wray further deflected when Blumenthal pressed further on whether the endorsement of QAnon conspiracy theories by members of Congress served to worsen the threat of violence.
“Our focus is on the violence,” Wray said, adding: “Obviously the folks who engaged in this kind of violence draw inspiration from a variety of sources and we’re concerned about any source that stimulates or motivates violent extremism.”
Although repeatedly pressed on linking the role of rhetoric in the riot, Wray deflected at several points throughout the hearing — effectively refusing to weigh in or formally condemn the impact of language in inspiring both the Jan. 6 Capitol attack and a wave of reported hate crimes against Asian and Asian-American people during the pandemic. Trump took aim at Asian people by popularizing the racist term “China virus” in reference to COVID-19. The term “Kung flu” has also been used as a racist derogatory term for the coronavirus.
Wray also evaded addressing the role of language when he told Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) that he didn’t think it was appropriate for him to comment on the role that language has played in an uptick in hate crimes against people of Asian descent during the pandemic.
“I don’t know that it’s really my place as FBI director to start weighing on rhetoric,” Wray said, adding that he would not personally use the racist terms when referring to the coronavirus.
He delivered a similar answer to Sen. Alex Padilla (D-CA) when asked whether Trump’s use of the racist language had contributed to the hate crimes.
“I want to be careful as FBI director not to start to get in the business of kind of weighing in and characterizing rhetoric,” he said.