Trump’s choice for FBI director grilled by panel
Wray says Mueller probe of Russia ties not ‘witch hunt’
WASHINGTON — The lawyer President Donald Trump picked to lead the FBI declared Wednesday that he does not believe a special counsel’s investigation into possible coordination between Russia and the Trump election campaign is a “witch hunt.”
Christopher Wray, a former high- ranking Justice Department official, also told senators at his confirmation hearing that he would never let politics get in the way of the bureau’s mission.
The FBI’s work will be driven only by “the facts, the law and the impartial pursuit of justice,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “My loyalty is to the Constitution and the rule of law. They have been my guideposts throughout my career, and I will continue to adhere to them no matter the test.”
Trump has criticized the ongoing investigation by the FBI and special counsel Robert Mueller, calling it a “hoax” and a “witch hunt.”
Wray, selected for the FBI job last month after Trump fired former Director James Comey, made clear that he disagreed with the “witch hunt” characterization.
“I do not consider Director Mueller to be on a witch hunt,” he said under questioning from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Wray pledged to lead the
FBI “without fear, without favoritism, and certainly without regard to any partisan political influence,” adding that he would consider unacceptable any efforts to interfere with Mueller’s investigation.
After Trump dismissed Comey on May 9, the former FBI director said the president had asked him to pledge his loyalty during a dinner at the White House months earlier. He also said Trump had encouraged him to end an investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Wray said Trump made no demand for loyalty from him. “And I sure as heck didn’t offer one,” he added.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., asked what Wray would do if the president requested that he take any steps that Wray believed were illegal.
“First, I would try to talk him out of it,” Wray said. “If that failed, I would resign.”
The back-and-forth with lawmakers focused extensively on the Russia investigation, with Wray repeatedly voicing his respect for Mueller and Mueller’s work. He said he had no reason to doubt the assessment of intelligence agencies that Russia had interfered in the U.S. election through hacking.
Asked by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the panel’s top Democrat, to commit to alerting the committee if he learned of any “machinations to tamper with” the investigation, he said he would consult with the appropriate officials to ensure he was not jeopardizing the inquiry.
“But I would consider an effort to tamper with Director Mueller’s investigation unacceptable and inappropriate and would need to be dealt with very sternly indeed,” he said.
And when asked about email released a day earlier showing that the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., was willing to take help from the Russian government during the campaign, he was emphatic that any foreign efforts to meddle in an election should be reported to the FBI rather than be accepted.
Wray was reluctant to answer the question directly. But when asked if Graham should take such a meeting, he said: “Senator, I think you’d want to consult with some good legal advisers before you do that … I think it would be wise to let the FBI know.”
TIES TO OTHERS
Wray, 50, has extensive experience in Washington, having served as head of the Justice Department’s criminal division in the administration of former President George W. Bush, a position in which he oversaw criminal prosecutions, and developed the U.S. government’s legal response to terrorism and national security threats.
He served in the government at a time when harsh interrogation techniques were approved by the Justice Department for terror suspects captured overseas, though Wray said he was never involved in signing off on those methods.
Wray said he considered torture to be wrong and ineffective. “The FBI is going to play no part in the use of any techniques of that sort,” he said.
He also was questioned about his relationships with Comey and Mueller. Trump allies have said Mueller’s closeness to Comey shows he can’t lead an unbiased investigation. But Trump nominated Wray despite his having worked with both men in the Justice Department.
Wray was at the department in 2004 when Comey, temporarily serving as acting attorney general in place of the ailing John Ashcroft, was prepared to resign during a dispute with the White House over the reauthorization of a domestic surveillance program.
Wray said he was willing to resign along with Comey and other Justice Department officials — not because he knew the substance of the dispute but because of the quality of the people who were prepared to leave.
“Knowing those people and having worked side by side with those people … there was no hesitation in my mind as to where I stood,” he said.
But Wray also sought to separate himself from Comey’s actions over the past year, including the former director’s announcement last summer that he would not recommend charges in the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified information.
Comey had explained the move as an effort in part to maintain the FBI’s political neutrality but was widely criticized for plunging the bureau into the middle of the presidential campaign. Former prosecutors criticized him for making public remarks about Clinton’s behavior.
Pressed by Graham on how he would have handled the investigation, Wray said he would not have held a news conference to announce his decision.
“In my experience as a prosecutor and as head of the criminal division, I understand there to be department policies that govern public comments about uncharged individuals,” Wray said of the Justice Department. “I think those policies are there for a reason, and I would follow those policies.”
Wray added, “I can’t imagine a situation where I would be giving a press conference on an uncharged individual, much less talking in detail about it.”
WRAY’S PAST WORK
Over the past decade, Wray has had a lucrative career working in private practice at King & Spalding in Atlanta, where he’s defended large corporations and financial institutions in criminal and civil cases.
He provided legal services to Johnson & Johnson, Wells Fargo, Credit Suisse and fantasy sports providers DraftKings and FanDuel, among other big-name clients, according to ethics documents released Monday. If confirmed, he’ll have to step aside for a year from matters involving those clients and the law firm.
Wray also assisted New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie during the so-called Bridgegate scandal.
Those who know him say that unlike the outspoken Comey, Wray would be a more reserved leader. FBI agents say they see his confirmation as a chance to stabilize an institution shaken by the events of the past year.
But Wray warned those listening to the hearing not to underestimate him because they might view him as “boring.”
“Anybody who does would be making a very grave mistake,” he said. He added that he would resist any political pressure, if confirmed to the position.
“I fully understand that this is not a job for the faint of heart,” Wray said. “I can assure this committee, I am not faint of heart.”
After more than two hours of questioning, senators from both parties said they were impressed with his answers. “I’m looking around and feeling that you had a good hearing today,” said Sen. Al Franken, D- Minn., who in past confirmation hearings has aggressively questioned nominees. “Best of luck to you.”
Information for this article was contributed by Sadie Gurman and Eric Tucker of The Associated Press; by Ellen Nakashima and Karoun Demirjian of The Washington Post; and by Adam Goldman and Michael S. Schmidt of The New York Times.
FBI director nominee Christopher Wray said Wednesday at his confirmation hearing that President Donald Trump made no demand for loyalty “and I sure as heck didn’t offer one.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy (left), D-Vt., asked FBI director nominee Christopher Wray during his confirmation hearing Wednesday what he would do if asked by President Donald Trump to take steps Wray believed to be illegal. Wray said he would try to dissuade the president, or failing that, resign.