Christopher A. Wray, President Trump’s nominee to head the FBI, told a Senate panel Wednesday that if the president improperly pressured him to drop an investigation, he would first try to talk him out of it — and if that failed, resign.
He testified during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee that no one has asked him for a loyalty oath as part of his nomination, adding, “And I sure as heck didn’t offer one.”
Wray, a low-key former senior Justice Department official, was nominated after Trump abruptly fired FBI Director James B. Comey in May amid a bureau investigation of potential coordination between Trump associates and the Kremlin to interfere in last year’s presidential election.
Comey’s dismissal hung over the proceedings, as a number of lawmakers said they wanted to avoid a repeat of the controversial firing. The former FBI director has testified that the president asked him for his “loyalty” and suggested that he drop an investigation of former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn.
The issue of the FBI’s independence took on even more significance this week in the wake of revelations that Trump’s son, son-in-law and then-campaign manager met last year with a Russian lawyer who Donald Trump Jr. believed might offer damaging information about Hillary Clinton, his father’s chief Democratic opponent.
Wray said he would never allow the bureau’s work to be driven by “anything other than the law, the facts and the impartial pursuit of justice.”
He said: “My loyalty is to the Constitution and the rule of law.”
Wray’s promise to resign before yielding to such pressure appeared to satisfy Republicans and Democrats that he would assert his independence on the job.
Asked by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the Judiciary Committee’s ranking Democrat, to commit to alerting the panel if he learned of any “machinations to tamper with” the investigation, Wray said he would consult with officials to ensure he was not jeopardizing the inquiry.
“But I would consider an effort to tamper with Director Mueller’s investigation unacceptable and inappropriate and would need to be dealt with very sternly indeed,” he said, referring to former FBI director Robert S. Mueller II, the special counsel leading the investigation of ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) sought Wray’s position on the meeting with the Russian lawyer in June 2016 attended by Trump Jr., Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort.
Wray did not answer directly. But when asked whether someone like Graham should agree to such a meeting, Wray responded: “Senator, I think you’d want to consult with some good legal advisers before you do that. . . . I think it would be wise to let the FBI know.”
In Wray, 50, the president chose an accomplished lawyer with a classic establishment pedigree: a Yale Law School degree, a clerkship for a respected and conservative appellate judge, experience as a federal prosecutor and work at a corporate law firm.
Wray’s tenure in President George W. Bush’s administration, in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks, raised questions from Democrats about his role in reviewing policies about the harsh interrogation of detainees that were blessed by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) in the Bush administration.
From 2001 to 2002, Wray worked directly under the deputy attorney general, and from 2003 to 2005, he headed the Justice Department’s criminal division.
Some Democrats noted that former OLC head John Yoo testified in 2008 that Wray was among the senior Justice Department officials who would have reviewed memos relating to interrogation techniques during Bush’s first term.
Wray said he did not remember commenting on or approving any memo for Yoo on the subject.
“I understand he thinks it’s possible he might have,” he said. “I can only tell this committee I have no recollection of that, and I think it’s the kind of thing I’d remember.”
Wray said that while he headed the criminal division, the department prosecuted a CIA contractor, David Passaro, who had “gone overboard” in interrogating a detainee in Afghanistan. Passaro was convicted in 2006 by a federal jury in North Carolina. “That was not only an important case in its own right, but sent a message about the criminal division’s intolerance for that kind of conduct,” Wray said.
During the hearing, Graham asked Wray whether he thought, as Trump has said, that the special counsel investigation of Russia led by Mueller is a witch hunt.
“I do not consider Director Mueller to be on a witch hunt,” Wray said.
When pressed by Graham, Wray also said that he has “no reason to doubt the conclusions of the intelligence community” that the Russian government interfered in the election with the intent to help Trump win — a finding that the president has cast doubt on.
Wray was asked about Comey’s handling of the case involving Clinton’s emails while she was secretary of state, especially his decision to hold a news conference to announce the conclusion of the investigation.
“I can’t imagine a situation where, as FBI director, I would be giving a press conference on an uncharged individual, much less talking in detail about it,” Wray said, noting that department policies restrict such actions.
Wray also spoke publicly for the first time about a 2004 incident in which he, along with Comey and other senior officials, was prepared to resign over a Bush administration warrantless surveillance program.
Wray said that although he was not privy to the program’s classified details, Comey, who was then acting attorney general, told him there was an “ongoing dispute over a program that was constitutional and legal in nature.”
Comey also identified the officials who were prepared to resign over the issue.
“Knowing those people, and that they were hardly shrinking violets in the war on terror, there was no hesitation in my standing with them,” Wray said. He said he told Comey to let him know if they were about to resign, “and I’ll resign with you.”
Wray said he has had two meetings with Trump and other officials at the White House as part of the nomination process, and went into them “listening very carefully” for any hints of pressure. “If anything had been said that made me remotely uncomfortable, I would not be sitting here today,” he said.
After several hours of questioning, Wray seemed to have made a positive impression on senators from both parties.
“I’m looking around and feeling that you had a good hearing today,” said Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who in past confirmation hearings — including that of Attorney General Jeff Sessions — has aggressively questioned nominees. “Best of luck to you.”