President Donald Trump’s pick to be the next FBI director previously voiced support for two high-ranking Justice Department officials that Trump has since fired: FBI Director James B. Comey and acting Attorney General Sally Yates.
Christopher Wray, whose confirmation hearing is set for July 12, 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, citing his judgment in the face of difficult decisions as well as his “integrity and independence.”
Wray also was one of 12 former DOJ officials who signed on to a letter supporting Yates’ nomination to the No. 2 post in the Justice Department as someone who knows the agency well and has respect of her peers “both in the Department and out.”
The letters, listed in Wray’s completed questionnaire made public last week, could present tricky moments for the nominee at what already promised to be a blockbuster confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Democrats on the panel say they will press for signs the next FBI director has the independence to stand up to political interference from Trump.
Trump’s firing of Yates and Comey, while within his presidential authority, raised concerns with some lawmakers and from the legal and national security communities about whether Trump was inappropriately trying to influence the Justice Department from the White House.
Wray, 50, who served as assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division from 2003 to 2005, might be asked to square his support for Comey with the actions of the president who nominated him to take Comey’s place. The letters highlight the small world of national security officials who worked in the upper levels of the Justice Department.
Trump has already questioned the close relationship between Comey and Robert S. Mueller III, a former FBI director who is now special counsel running the bureau investigation into the connections between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives during the 2016 presidential election.
Comey’s credibility has become central in the ongoing political drama of the Russian probe. The fired FBI director testified in a high-profile hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee about meetings with Trump, which many legal experts say go a long way toward showing that the president tried to obstruct the FBI’s investigation.
Trump and the FBI
Trump fired Comey on May 9. While the White House initially said DOJ officials recommended the action, Trump later told NBC News that he had intended to fire the FBI director and cited the Russia investigation as his reason.
Trump told Russians he fired “nut job” Comey and it eased pressure on him, according to media reports. In a tweet after Comey’s testimony in early June, Trump called Comey “cowardly.”
The letter about Comey from Wray and other Justice Department officials took a different view of Comey.
“In turn, we know, from our own experience, what it takes to lead the FBI — integrity, intelligence, independence, dedication, vision, compassion, judgment, and a steadfast adherence to the rule of law,” the letter stated. “Jim Comey possesses all of these traits.”
Trump fired Yates in January after she declined to defend his executive order temporarily banning U.S. entry by all refugees and foreign nationals from certain majority-Muslim countries. The travel ban has been the subject of legal challenges that have gone all the way to the Supreme Court, which has allowed a partial implementation of Trump’s revised order.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley said he will seek a final floor vote before the August recess on Wray, now in private practice with the Atlanta-based King & Spaulding firm.
The questionnaire covers standard biographical information, such as work history and public statements, and significant legal matters Wray has handled.
It also shows Wray would give up quite a partnership distribution at his law firm if he is confirmed as FBI director, which carries a 10-year term. 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.