Updated 2:09 p.m. | Amid a deepening federal investigation into the Trump campaign’s contact with Russian operatives, Christopher Wray assured senators Wednesday he would remain independent as FBI director and adhere to the rule of law “no matter the test.”
“If I am given the honor of leading this agency, 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,” Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee during the confirmation hearing. “Period. Full stop.”
Lawmakers from both parties focused less on the professional qualifications of Wray, and more on his ability to stand up to the White House during a tumultuous time for the bureau and the presidency.
Wray, 50, faced little opposition in his hearing and appears uncontroversial, particularly compared to other nominees of President Donald Trump. Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley has said he wants a final confirmation vote for Wray on the Senate floor before the August recess. If confirmed, Wray would serve a 10-year term.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the committee, pointed out that Wray was only a candidate for the job because President Donald Trump had asked previous FBI Director James B. Comey for his loyalty, urged him to quash part of the bureau’s Russian inquiry in a one-on-one meeting in the Oval Office, and then abruptly fired him in May.
FBI Nominee Faces Judiciary Committee Grilling
“We must also examine his independence, his integrity and his willingness to stand up in the face of political pressure,” Feinstein said of Wray in her opening statement. “Because it will most certainly come.”
In response to questions from Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., Wray told the committee that the Trump administration had not asked for his loyalty, and he wouldn’t have given it. He said he would resign if Trump asked him to do something illegal or unethical.
The only way to run the FBI is “by the book, playing it straight,” without fear, favoritism or regard for partisan considerations, he said.
“I have way, way, way too much respect, and affection frankly, for the men and women of the FBI to do less than that,” Wray said. “And I would just say, anybody who thinks I would be pulling punches as the FBI director sure doesn’t know me well.”
Grassley stressed Wray’s work at the Justice Department during the George W. Bush administration as proof that he is independent.
“In reviewing his record, I’ve seen Mr. Wray’s commitment to independence,” Grassley said. “He’s prosecuted ‘little guys’ and ‘big guys,’ including a major league baseball player, gun-traffickers and RICO violators. He’s prosecuted folks on both sides of the political spectrum, including folks working on a Republican campaign.”
Grassley also pointed to “strong bipartisan support” from more than 100 former U.S. attorneys across the country, including former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and other appointees of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Feinstein pressed Wray about his role in reviewing Justice Department memos from the Bush administration that justified the use of enhanced interrogation techniques. One of the authors of the memos, John Yoo, testified to Congress that Wray was one of the officials who would have received drafts of the memos and provided comments on one memo.
“First, let me say my view is that torture is wrong, it’s unacceptable, it’s illegal and I think it’s ineffective,” Wray said. “During my time as principal associate deputy attorney general, to my recollection, I never reviewed, much less provided comments on or input on, and much less approved any memo from John Yoo on this topic.”
“And I think it’s the kind of thing I would remember,” he added.
Yet Wray couldn’t avoid questions on the biggest controversy of the day.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., brought up emails released Tuesday by Donald Trump Jr. in which he set up a meeting 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. Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son and one of his father’s confidants during the campaign, did not report the meeting to the FBI.
“Should Donald Trump Jr. have taken that meeting?” Graham asked. “If I got a call from somebody saying the Russian government wants to help Lindsey Graham get re-elected, they’ve got dirt on Lindsey Graham’s opponent, should I take that meeting?”
“Senator, I would think you’d want to consult with some good legal advisers before you did that,” Wray replied. He added that any threat to interfere with elections “is the kind of thing the FBI would like to know.”
Wray said he would support special counsel Robert S. Mueller III in his investigation of connections between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives during the 2016 election.
Several senators noted Wray was stepping into a challenging situation, when public confidence in the FBI has been shaken.
“This is going to be an interesting life, but I’m not sure it’s going to be a great life,” Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, told the nominee.
Later in the hearing, after a similar comment, Wray said: “This is not a job for the faint of heart, and I am not faint of heart.”