WASHINGTON — As President Trump confronts new questions about his family and top campaign aides’ contacts with Russia, his nominee to lead the FBI prepared Wednesday for a public vetting before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The appearance of Christopher Wray, a former assistant attorney general during the administration of President George W. Bush, comes two months after Trump’s abrupt dismissal of James Comey as he was running the government’s inquiry into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Wray is sure to face questions about the ongoing Russia investigations — now led by a special counsel in the wake of Comey’s dismissal — and how he would handle a president who has been accused of asking his previous FBI director for a pledge of personal loyalty.
For nearly a decade, the Yale Law School graduate steadily climbed the ranks at the Justice Department, starting as an assistant U.S. attorney in Atlanta and departing in 2005 after serving as the chief of the sprawling Criminal Division in the Washington headquarters.
Perhaps his most public recognition came as the head of the Justice task force that won convictions against executives at former Texas energy giant Enron, whose chief executive Ken Lay, was among President Bush’s biggest contributors.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Wray also managed far-flung efforts to dismantle terrorist operations as the government worked to gauge the continuing threat against the homeland.
It was during that tense time that the FBI began a dramatic transformation in mission under then-Director Robert Mueller, from an agency that largely investigated crimes after the fact to an intelligence-driven operation aimed at thwarting new attacks against the U.S.
Mueller is now serving as special counsel running the Russia probe.
Although Wray’s nomination has received bipartisan support, his post-9/11 work at Justice is likely to draw pointed questions from the panel. Faiz Shakir, the ACLU’s national political director, has said Wray should be pressed on the Bush administration’s harsh treatment of detainees, some of whom were subjected to waterboarding and other torture.
“In this important moment for our country, the American people deserve a commitment from any nominee for FBI director to the foundational principles of our Constitution, and that that commitment outweighs any loyalty to a political party or a single politician,” Shakir said.
Bill Mateja, a former Justice official who worked with Wray, said he knows of no reason the nomination could be blocked, recalling a colleague who spent long days and nights at the office. A mussed mop of hair and rumpled clothing often betrayed the strain of a demanding schedule. “Sometimes, he would spend the night at the office,” Mateja said of Wray. “He wouldn’t go home until he got it all done – whatever it was,”
The grinding work ethic, associates said, is strikingly similar to the distinctive style – or lack of it – that Mueller brought to the same post he held for 12 years, the longest-serving director since J.Edgar Hoover. In a town full of out-sized personalities, Mueller actively sought to avoid the public spotlight. And Wray appears to be cut from the same mold.
“This is not somebody who is in it to draw attention to himself,” said Andrew Hruska, a former Justice colleague whose friendship with the nominee dates to their days in grade school in New York. “Chris is used to working in demanding circumstances and keeping his head in difficult times. That said, it’s never easy to the the FBI director. Regardless of the political or legal storm, he will not be compromised.”
Still, Wray – if confirmed – is walking into agency that has been buffeted by unrelenting controversy since last year, starting with Comey’s decision not to recommend criminal charges against Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server and then to suddenly re-open the inquiry just 11 days before the 2016 election. The case was closed again without charges just days before Election Day, but Clinton has blamed the former FBI director for tilting the vote to Trump.
More recently, the bureau was left reeling when Trump announced Comey’s dismissal in May, later attributing the decision to the director’s oversight of the Justice investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. The firing was followed by disclosures that Comey had kept a secret file of memos chronicling his meetings with Trump, including a February White House encounter in which the president allegedly pressed Comey to drop the bureau’s investigation into short-time National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
The revelations prompted the Justice Department to appoint Mueller as a special counsel to oversee the ongoing Russia inquiry, meaning the incoming nominee would not be overseeing the Russia investigation.
Wray was not among the first short list of names suggested to replace Comey, but several higher profile candidates withdrew from consideration. Wray seemed an unlikely choice because of his past relationships with both Mueller and Comey, who are both frequent targets of Trump as the special counsel investigation continues.
In advance of Comey’s confirmation hearing in 2013, Wray joined nine other former Justice officials in a letter offering effusive support for Comey’s nomination.
“He (Comey) has integrity and independence born of his innate sense of what is required of senior public service,” the letter stated. “He never expects more of anybody else than he expects of himself.”
Still, associates said Wray may be uniquely suited to bring calm to an institution that has been roiled by controversy. They cite his experience on both sides of the bar, including his defense of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie during the so-called “Bridgegate” scandal.
Because Mueller is now overseeing the Russia inquiry, Chris Swecker, a former FBI assistant director, said Wray – if confirmed– could focus on making his way in a new agency.
“He won’t be distracted by this political storm that seems to kick up something new every day,” Swecker said. “Because he’s been gone from Justice for so long, he’s kind of an unknown in the bureau. He’s going in with the blank slate. He’s got a lot of work ahead of him.”