High-flying criminal lawyer Christopher Wray took a big step Wednesday toward becoming the next director of the FBI as he told lawmakers he would resign rather than bow to political interference.
Nominated by Donald Trump after the president fired FBI chief James Comey in May, Wray told a confirmation hearing he would be ready to step down as head of the country’s most powerful law enforcement agency if given an illegal or immoral order from above.
While unwilling to directly criticize his future boss during questioning by the Senate Judiciary Committee, Wray staked out an independent line amid worries Trump has sought to stifle the investigation into alleged collusion between his election campaign and Russia.
“There is only one right way to do this job, and that is with strict independence,” Wray told the panel.
“You can’t do a job like this without being prepared to either quit or be fired at a moment’s notice you’re asked to do something or confronted with something that is either illegal, unconstitutional or even morally repugnant,” he said. “You have to be able to stand firm to your principles.”
Wray also rejected Trump’s insistence that the Russia investigation now led by independent prosecutor Robert Mueller — a former FBI director — is a “witch hunt” based on “fake news.”
“I do not consider director Mueller to be on a witch hunt,” Wray assured the panel.
If confirmed Wray’s first challenge will be to reassure the more than 30,000 employees of the FBI of his commitment to their independence after Trump fired Comey in frustration over the Russia probe, going on to label the respected former prosecutor a “liar.”
Born into a family of New York lawyers, Wray, 50, graduated from Yale Law School and was a Justice Department prosecutor for years.
In 2003 he rose up to assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division, where he mostly oversaw fraud investigations, including the huge case of Enron, the Texas energy firm that imploded with billions of dollars of losses tied to corruption.
In 2005 he resigned to join private practice as a partner at King & Spalding law firm in Washington and Atlanta.
Wray has represented major companies in litigation but also, most recently, worked for Trump ally Chris Christie in the so-called “Bridgegate” political scandal in New Jersey.
Politically, he was an uncontroversial pick to take the helm of the FBI, one of the country’s most politically powerful jobs. FBI chiefs have alternately bolstered and made life miserable for presidents over decades. In the 1990s Bill Clinton’s eight years in office were plagued by investigations led by Louis Freeh, whom he personally chose to run the agency.
To date, Wray’s clearest demonstration of resistance to political pressure came when he was in the Justice Department working under Comey.
In 2004 Comey was made acting attorney general due to the illness of his boss John Ashcroft.
When George W. Bush’s White House tried to take advantage of Ashcroft’s illness to ram through an extension of a controversial warrantless eavesdropping program, Comey, and then-FBI director Mueller, took a stance against it, putting their jobs on the line.
As the two prevented Bush’s aides from reaching Ashcroft in his hospital bed, according to the Washington Post, Wray, who was also there, told Comey: “Look, I don’t know what’s going on. But before you guys all pull the rip cords, please give me a heads-up so I can jump with you.”
Besides that, and his work for Christie, Wray has steered clear of political controversy.
But, with his wife and children sitting behind him in the hearing, he told senators not to be fooled by his soft-spoken manner.
“I’ve heard many people describe me as understated and low key. My kids would describe me more as just boring,” he said. “No one should mistake my low-key demeanor as a lack of resolve.”
“Anybody who thinks that I would be pulling punches as the FBI director sure doesn’t know me very well.”
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