WASHINGTON — The attorney selected to replace James Comey as FBI director is described by those close to him as admirably low-key, yet he'd be taking over the law enforcement agency at a moment that's anything but tranquil.
Christopher Wray would inherit an FBI that lost its popular leader in an unceremonious firing in May and that has spent the last year investigating whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to win the presidency. During this most consequential probe in decades, he'd be serving under a president who is said to have demanded loyalty from Comey and has appeared insensitive to the traditionally bright boundary between the White House and the FBI.
Wray's hearing Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee may dive into his legal background but will almost certainly focus on the political maelstrom surrounding the nomination, with Democrats and perhaps some Republicans seeking assurances of his independence from President Donald Trump.
Lawyers and FBI agents who have worked with Wray don't expect that to be a problem, describing him as calm, methodical and even-handed. He has deep experience in Washington, serving as the top criminal lawyer in the Bush administration Justice Department and working closely not only with Comey but also Robert Mueller, the former FBI director who's now serving as special counsel in charge of the Russia investigation.
Wray's confirmation would thrust him immediately into the ongoing Russia investigation, and though he'd likely receive updates on the probe's progress and work to ensure that the special counsel has the resources he needs, prosecution decisions would be made by Mueller and his team.
“The people in the bureau are particularly concerned about what's going to walk through that door,” said Monique Roth, who worked under Wray in the criminal division. “He is a very steady hand at the helm.”
Wray, 50, was selected following a weeks-long search that began days after Trump abruptly fired Comey. Several current and former elected officials were interviewed for the job, and many contenders gradually withdrew from consideration. The pick was revealed in a tweet that came as Washington was focused on consecutive days of significant congressional hearings involving top intelligence officials and then Comey.
Wray was a top Justice Department official under Attorney General John Ashcroft and was nominated by President George W. Bush to head the criminal division between 2003 and 2005. In that position, besides overseeing major criminal prosecutions — such as the special task force investigating the Enron collapse — Wray also helped shape the U.S. government's legal response to terrorism and national security threats. A specialized national security division was created after Wray's departure.
Though there's not much in his background likely to trip him up at his hearing, Democrats will probably press him on his involvement in national security matters in the Bush administration, a period when the government authorized harsh interrogation techniques and routinely shipped to Guantanamo Bay terrorism suspects captured on foreign battlefields. Redacted emails to and from him are included in an ACLU database of memos on the interrogation and detention of terror suspects.
But Barry Sabin, chief of the criminal division's counterterrorism section at the time, said Wray made clear he did not support torture. Sabin pointed to the prosecution under Wray of a CIA contract worker in the beating an Afghan detainee who later died and said that after the Sept. 11 attacks, Wray recognized the need to balance national security concerns with civil liberties protections.
“He has an exceptionally strong foundation to guide the bureau through threats and through challenges known and unknown,” Sabin said.
Wray was at the department in 2004 when Comey, then the deputy attorney general, threatened to resign during a dispute with the White House over the reauthorization of a domestic surveillance program. Wray stopped Comey in the hallway one night amid resignation rumors with a particular request, according to the 2011 book, “The Threat Matrix.”
“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,” Wray said.
Wray has spent the last decade in private practice at King & Spalding in Atlanta, where he's defended large corporations and financial institutions in criminal and civil cases. Most notably, he was personal lawyer to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in an investigation into the closing of the George Washington Bridge.
Joe Robuck, a retired FBI agent who worked with Wray when he was a federal prosecutor in Atlanta, recalled him as a true partner whom he trusted enough to travel with on his interviews with witnesses, something not every prosecutor would do. They investigated a complicated securities fraud and public corruption case that had them and others working together around the clock. He was dedicated, and commanded the respect of agents, said Robuck, who expects Wray would have the same approach as FBI director.
“He has a sense for his place in history,” said Roth, of the criminal division, noting that Wray seemed unconcerned that he was a Republican and she was not, even in his politically appointed position.
FBI directors are appointed to 10-year terms meant to insulate them from political influence. And the bureau has been through transitions before, with successive leaders sporting different management styles.
Louis Freeh, an ex-agent himself, was known to jog with Quantico academy recruits. He was replaced by Mueller, who took over days before the Sept. 11 attacks and shepherded the bureau through a tense decade of national security threats with a demanding, competent management style.
Comey was exceedingly well-liked by subordinates for his approachable leadership, and his abrupt dismissal — and shifting explanations from the White House, and public denigration of their work — angered career agents.
“At the end of the day, they've got a job to do — that's to protect the national security of the country,” said retired FBI official Andrew Arena. “They'll get over it quickly. Jim Comey would want them to.”
Arena said the fact that Wray's “not an excitable type of guy” may make him the right pick for the time.
“I think it's what you need right now, kind of calm everyone down and get everything on track.”
- Former FBI director Comey compares Trump to mob boss
- The year of Mueller: 12 months in, here's what we've learned
- AP source: Mueller turns to DC grand jury in Russia probe
- Trump's FBI pick to face questions about independence
- Trump legal team looking to investigate Mueller aides
- Comey's testimony to put uncomfortable spotlight on Trump
- UPDATED: Trump nominates former Justice Department official as FBI head