Terry H. Schwadron
The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday to consider Christopher A. Wray as the next FBI director was an outpouring of respect, good feeling and comfortable questioning. Consent in the Senate seems a foregone conclusion.
The questions were offered respectfully, and the answers throughout were careful, relatively short, and reflected a certain thoughtfulness that avoided ideologies. He seems genuinely interested in pursuing crime in all of its forms. Anything remotely controversial drew responses that suggested he would be a good student in the new job to find out why various processes or programs operate the way that they do within the FBI and Justice. He was approached for the job by Rob Rosenstein, the number two in the Justice Department.
Along the way, Wray, 50, a former Justice Department official in the Bush administration before working as a private lawyer, embraced James Comey, Sally Yates (both fired by Trump over disagreements) and Robert S. Mueller III, who is investigating the Russia matters, as colleagues, disdained waterboarding and torture, insisted that he would remain independent of the President, and retain loyalty only to the Constitution.
The only real question that hung in the air was why he would be an appointee of President Donald Trump. How did he get through that nomination process, that inevitable conversation with the President, that must question that must have arisen in some fashion about being a good FBI director in the Trump era? Did Donald Trump, who brought himself a whole lot of mess by firing Comey over “loyalty” really never ask Wray straight out whether he would be supportive?
Maybe not. With other presidents, I think we all might give the benefit of doubt and accept that the White House actually looked for a most respected, independent director nominee. This president has not made thoughtfulness and independence the highest values that a nominee can bring.
He also testified that no one asked him for any loyalty oath as part of his nomination. “And I sure as heck didn’t offer one,” he said.
Wray said, “My loyalty is to the Constitution and to the rule of law. Those have been my guideposts throughout my career, and I will continue to adhere to them no matter the test.” He added: “I will never allow the FBI’s work to be driven by anything other than the facts, the law and the impartial pursuit of justice. Period.”
Later he said that there was only one way to do the job — ”without fear, without favoritism, and certainly without regard to any partisan political influence.”
Senator Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt, asked what Wray would do if the President asked him to 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.” Wray said he did not agree with President Trump’s repeatedly assertion that the investigation was a “witch hunt.”
Listening into the hearing was oddly reassuring for me. Unlike other of these consent meetings, this felt like bipartisanship with a real respect for intelligent responses.
And he separated from Comey by saying that he would not have held a news conference, as Comey had held about Hillary Clinton’s handling of emails. “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. I think those policies are there for a reason and I would follow those policies.”
Under questioning from Sen. Lindsay Graham about the wisdom of Donald Trump Jr. , Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner meeting with a Russian lawyer, Wray reluctantly 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.”
Asked by Sen. Dianne Feinstein about torture claims under former President George W. Bush, he said he never ruled on the rules that had authorized use of torture, so as to remain independent to pursue various investigations of CIA abuse.
Before working as a defense lawyer (for among others, Chris Christie), Wray was a Justice Department prosecutor in Atlanta and became associate deputy attorney general in Washington in May 2001. As the head of the department’s criminal division from 2003 to 2005, he investigated C.I.A. abuses of detainees, including the deaths of two men in Afghanistan and Iraq. He graduated from Yale and Yale Law School.
He is considered a very careful lawyer, interested in process as well as outcome, and has the support of the FBI Agents’ Association and 100 former U.S. attorneys for the nomination.