WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's pick to lead the FBI faces a confirmation hearing Wednesday that will undoubtedly focus on the political tumult surrounding his nomination, with both Democrats and Republicans seeking assurances of his independence from the White House.
Christopher Wray, 50, would inherit the nation's top law enforcement agency at a particularly challenging time. Trump abruptly fired predecessor James Comey, who was widely admired within the agency, during its investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election and potential coordination with the Trump campaign.
Wednesday's hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee could delve into Wray's lengthy legal career that included a stint as a top Justice Department official in the Bush administration and white collar work at an international law firm with several major corporations and banks as clients.
But lawmakers are more likely to drill into Wray's leadership style and how he would operate under a president who is said to have demanded loyalty from Comey and who has appeared insensitive to the traditionally bright boundary between the White House and the FBI.
Announced as the nominee in a curt, early morning tweet by Trump, and without the pageantry of a Rose Garden ceremony, the hearing will offer the first public, close-up look at Wray's background.
Those close to him say he's the right man for the job. Attorneys and FBI agents who have worked with Wray describe him as a steady hand, dedicated and low-key, seemingly impervious to political influence.
An association representing the majority of FBI agents on Monday voiced its support for Wray, saying “he understands the nature of investigative work and the centrality of special agents to the mission of the FBI.”
Bill Mateja, a Dallas attorney who worked with Wray in the Justice Department, said “he has a great moral compass and he's no one's minion.”
He also might face questions about his relationships with Comey and Robert Mueller, the former FBI director who's now serving as special counsel in charge of the Russia investigation. Trump allies have said Mueller's closeness to Comey shows he can't lead an unbiased probe. But Trump nominated Wray despite his having worked alongside both men in the Justice Department.
Wray was at the department in 2004 when Comey, then the deputy attorney general, and then-director Mueller 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 is quoted as saying.
Those who know him say that unlike the outspoken Comey, Wray would be a more reserved leader. His reserve could bode well for the agency at a time when its work has been thrust into the center of a political maelstrom.
He has deep experience in Washington, having served as head of the Justice Department's criminal division in the Bush administration, a position that had him overseeing major criminal prosecutions — such as the special task force investigating the Enron collapse — and also developing the U.S. government's legal response to terrorism and national security threats.
Civil liberties advocates have urged senators to press him on his involvement in national security matters during that period, when the government authorized harsh interrogation techniques and routinely shipped terrorism suspects captured on foreign battlefields to Guantanamo Bay. Redacted emails to and from him are included in an ACLU database of memos on the interrogation and detention of terror suspects.
He also could be grilled about his work over 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. He provided legal services to Johnson & Johnson, Wells Fargo, Credit Suisse and fantasy sports providers DraftKings and FanDuel, among other big-name clients, according to ethics documents released Monday. If confirmed, he'll have to step aside for a year from matters involving those clients and the firm. He also assisted New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie during the so-called Bridgegate scandal.
Still, Mateja predicted “smooth sailing” for Wray.
“Chris is a Republican but he doesn't wear his politics on his sleeve. He keeps things close to his vest,” Mateja said in a statement. “The public can rest easy that Chris will not be a lackey for Trump.”
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