Policy

Senators to Grill FBI Pick Wray on Independence, Terrorism

‘I say this without hesitation — Chris simply does not make mistakes’

FBI Director nominee Christopher Wray’s confirmation hearing on Wednesday comes at a tumultuous time for the bureau and the presidency. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Christopher Wray won’t be able to escape questions about President Donald Trump at his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday to be the next FBI director, but he’ll draw on his reputation and experience to make his case.

Wray’s nomination comes at a tumultuous time for the bureau and the presidency. Trump abruptly fired FBI director James B. Comey in May amid the bureau’s probe into connections between the president’s campaign and Russian operatives during the 2016 election.

Comey testified last month that Trump had asked for his loyalty and urged him to quash the bureau’s inquiry into Michael Flynn, the president’s former national security adviser. A special counsel now oversees that investigation, which used to be within the FBI director’s purview.

And the hearing comes amid reports in The New York Times that Donald Trump Jr. met with a Kremlin-connected lawyer regarding damaging information about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton as part of a Russian government effort to aid his father’s run for the White House.

Democrats will have plenty of questions. Wray, 50, will look to highlight his professionalism and independence, which former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson lauded this month in a letter to the Judiciary Committee.

“I say this without hesitation — Chris simply does not make mistakes,” Thompson wrote of their time at the Justice Department, which the FBI is part of. “I can tell firsthand that I’ve not worked with or seen an individual with a keener sense of the Department’s mission or the need for the Department’s business to be conducted free from favor, influence or partisanship.”

Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley has said he wants a final confirmation vote for Wray on the Senate floor before the August recess.

Here are four things to know about Wray as senators grill him to serve a 10-year term:

Solid credentials

Wray’s experience and background met the test put forward by Senate Democrats — that the nominee to replace Comey know the Justice Department and not be a politician.

Wray previously served in several positions in the Justice Department during the George W. Bush administration, and was integral in the department’s response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

He was the assistant attorney general in charge of the DOJ’s criminal division from 2003 to 2005. The Senate confirmed Wray under unanimous consent, indicating there was no controversy about him at the time.

Thompson said Wray, “without fear or favor,” played key leadership roles in the investigations and prosecutions of executives at Enron, WorldCom and Adelphia.

Wray has been a partner at King & Spaulding in Washington and Atlanta, where his clients included New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie during the “Bridgegate” scandal. He has also represented corporations, boards of directors and others concerning criminal tax provisions, foreign bribery laws, security laws and more.

“Above all, he will need to show his commitment to protecting the Bureau’s independence,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., a member of the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement when Wray’s nomination was announced last month by Trump. “That independence is more important than ever given the inevitable conflicts with the interests of the man who sits in the Oval Office.”

Detainees

Wray’s role in the Justice Department’s fight against terrorism could prompt several questions about Bush administration policies after 9/11.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations called on the Judiciary Committee to question Wray about his role, noted in a Justice Department inspector general report from 2003, in how detainees were denied telephone calls and other communications.

The communications blackout prevented detainees from contacting family members and legal counsel for weeks following their detention, CAIR stated. Wray told investigators he had told one prison official to push as far toward security within the bounds of the law, the group stated.

Wray also knew earlier than the public in 2004 about CIA abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and “was at the very least on the fringes of discussions on the legality of military interrogation techniques in 2003,” the Miami Herald reported.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., was reported to be disturbed about Wray’s testimony in 2004 that the Justice Department was not notified about possible violations of law at Abu Ghraib. “I am concerned about this,” Leahy wrote at the bottom of a letter to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Leahy still sits on the Judiciary Committee.

National security insider

Wray previously voiced support for two high-ranking Justice Department officials that Trump has since fired: Comey and acting Attorney General Sally Yates.

The letters, listed in his questionnaire submitted to the Judiciary Committee, show his relationships among former top Justice Department officials who are part of the expansive cast of characters in the Russian investigation.

Wray was one of 10 former DOJ officials who submitted a letter to the Senate in 2013 that supported Comey’s nomination to lead the FBI. Also signing that letter was former Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, who now represents Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the president’s daughter and son-in-law who serve as presidential advisers.

Big salary 

Wray would take quite a hit in income if confirmed as FBI director, who makes somewhere short of $200,000.

He listed $9.2 million of income allocation from his law firm in a year on his financial disclosure form. He also said on a committee questionnaire that he expects a distribution of $880,000 for June, and if he continues at the firm through July, he would get a final payment of $815,000 for that month.

If confirmed, Wray would also get back his $1.3 million paid-in capital from the firm.

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