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FBI director raises alarm about white supremacy, Russia interference; Trump’s DHS chief skips hearing

New York Daily News logo New York Daily News 9/17/2020 Chris Sommerfeldt
a man wearing a suit and tie: Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray testifies before a House Committee on Homeland Security hearing on 'worldwide threats to the homeland', Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020 on Capitol Hill Washington. (Chip Somodevilla/Pool via AP) © Chip Somodevilla Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray testifies before a House Committee on Homeland Security hearing on 'worldwide threats to the homeland', Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020 on Capitol Hill Washington. (Chip Somodevilla/Pool via AP)

FBI Director Christopher Wray warned lawmakers on Thursday that Russian election interference and violent white supremacist groups rank among the top threats to U.S. national security — a message sharply at odds with President Trump’s views.

Wray made the stark assessment during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing that was supposed to also feature testimony from Chad Wolf, Trump’s acting homeland security secretary.

But Wolf — who’s under scrutiny over allegations that he tinkered with U.S. intelligence reports to downplay the national security threats posed by Russia and white supremacy — didn’t show up despite a subpoena, drawing outrage from the committee’s Democrats.

“Mr. Wolf should be here to testify, as secretaries of Homeland Security have done before. Instead, we have an empty chair — an appropriate metaphor for the Trump administration’s dereliction on so many of these critical homeland security issues,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the committee’s chairman.

As the anger over Wolf’s empty chair subsided, the attention turned to Wray.

The FBI director, who has a history of contradicting Trump, was asked about the ways in which Russia is interfering in this year’s presidential election.

Echoing the U.S. intelligence community’s consensus, Wray said Russia is seeking to “denigrate” Joe Biden in order to help Trump win reelection, an effort similar to Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election.

Wray said that, so far, Russia appears mostly focused on spreading misinformation, unlike in 2016, when it also stole Democratic emails and tried to hack into U.S. voting systems.

“We certainly have seen very active efforts by the Russians to influence our elections in 2020,” Wray said.

Trump has refused to unambiguously accept the U.S. intelligence community’s findings on Russia’s election attacks.

In recent weeks, the president has sought to play up the intel community’s conclusion that Iran and China are also interfering in this year’s election, while largely overlooking Russia’s role.

Moving away from Russia, Wray told lawmakers that “racially-motivated violent extremism” remains the top domestic threat in the U.S.

“Within that racially-motivated violent extremism bucket, people ascribing to some kind of white supremacist-type ideology is certainly the biggest chunk of that,” Wray said.

That assessment also runs counter to views held by Trump and many of his senior officials.

Trump and Attorney General William Barr have embarked on a dubious effort to blame violence in American cities exclusively on “Antifa,” a loosely-organized movement of left-wing activists.

Last week, Barr even reportedly told federal prosecutors on a phone call that he wants them to consider charging left-wing protesters with “sedition” — an arcane, rarely prosecuted crime that dates back to the 1700s.

All the while, Trump and Barr have all but ignored an explosion of far-right violence across the country.

Trump, for instance, has refused to condemn a 17-year-old supporter of his accused of shooting two protesters to death in Kenosha, Wisc.

On Antifa, Wray said there are “quite a number of properly-predicated, domestic terrorism investigation” targeting “violent anarchists” who ascribe to the Antifa ideology.

However, undercutting Trump and Barr, Wray said that’s “just one part” of a domestic extremist threat picture that’s far more dominated by right-wing violence.

“We look at Antifa as more of an ideology or a movement than an organization,” Wray said.

Wolf, who loomed large over the hearing despite his absence, has helped Barr and Trump push the idea that Antifa is the worst extremist threat facing the nation.

According to a whistleblower in Wolf’s agency, the acting secretary’s top deputies pressured officers to make intelligence assessments depict the threat of white supremacy as “less severe” and play up “the prominence of violent ‘left-wing’ groups.”

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