Trump's FBI nominee doesn't think the Russia probe is a "witch hunt"

July 12, 2017, 11:30am

Donald Trump’s pick to lead the FBI, Christopher Wray, took questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday — and casting a long shadow over the day’s proceedings were the unusual circumstances that led to his nomination, namely, the president’s abrupt firing of former FBI Director James Comey in early May.

Wray, 50, was nominated on June 7, after a number of potential candidates withdrew their candidacy amid swirling allegations about the Trump administration and possible collusion with the Kremlin during the 2016 election.

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Wray served as assistant attorney general during the George W. Bush administration from 2003 to 2005 and was charged with overseeing the Justice Department’s criminal division. He has also been a line prosecutor and, most recently, a litigation lawyer, specializing largely in white-collar crime and fraud, with the firm King & Spalding. And he was in the news last year as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s personal attorney during the Bridgegate scandal.

“Do you realize,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham asked, “that you’re stepping into the role of FBI director during one of the most contentious times in American politics?”

“There’s been a lot of contentious times,” Wray replied. “But this one is certainly up there.”

Here are some of the questions that members of the Judiciary Committee raised during the confirmation hearing, and how Wray chose to respond:

Is Russia our friend or our enemy?

In a terse round of questioning by Graham, the South Carolina senator pressed Wray on what our relationship to Russia should look like.

“Senator, I think Russia is a foreign nation that we have to deal with warily,” Wray replied after hesitating briefly.

“Do you think they’re an adversary of the United States?” Graham said.

“In some situations, yes,” Wray said.

Did President Trump ever ask you to make a pledge or promise of loyalty during the interview process?

“From what we’ve seen from the White House, they may be expecting your loyalty,” said Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy. Comey testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month that, during one interaction with the president, Trump demanded his loyalty, and he demurred, saying he would instead offer his “honesty.” Wray said that no such demand had been made of him.

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“My loyalty is to the Constitution, to the rule of law, and to the mission of the FBI,” Wray said. “Nobody asked me for any kind of loyalty oath, and I sure as heck didn’t offer one.”

How should we be confident that you will lead an independent FBI free from political pressure and influence?

Committee chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa, acknowledging that his questions might be considered softball by his colleagues, asked Wray his view on the independence of the FBI generally.

“I believe to my core that there’s only one way to this job,” Wray replied. “And that is with strict independence, by the book, playing it straight. Without fear, without favoritism, and certainly without regard to any partisan influence.”

Would you stand up to the president if necessary?

Sen. Leahy asked Wray the same question that then-Sen. Jeff Sessions had asked former deputy assistant attorney general Sally Yates in her confirmation hearing in 2015. “What would you do if the president tried to ask you to do something that was unlawful?” Leahy asked. “She [Yates] kept her word, and got fired for it.”

“I would try to talk him out of it,” Wray said. “And if that failed, I would resign.”

Would you meet privately with the president if asked?

“I would call [Deputy Attorney General Rod] Rosenstein,” Wray said, and consult him. “The relationship between any FBI director and the president needs to be a professional one, not a social one, and there shouldn’t be any one-on-one discussion between the FBI director and the president about how to conduct particular cases.”

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What should you do if you lose confidence in the attorney general?

Graham pressed Wray on whether he would have taken the same actions as Comey did last year with regards to the investigation into Clinton’s emails, specifically him giving a press conference on the issue and “taking over the prosecutor’s job” by saying charges were not warranted. Wray eventually said he would not have done either of those things.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island asked Wray whether there are any circumstances in which it’s OK to overstep the role of the attorney general. “What if you lose confidence in the attorney general?” he asked. “If you’re not going to unilaterally take over the role of the attorney general, what would Plan B look like? Who do you go to?”

“Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein would be the right place to go,” Wray replied.

“Good answer,” said Whitehouse. “I agree with you.”

Is the investigation into possible collusion between the Trump administration by special counsel Mueller a “witch hunt,” as the president has described it?

Graham asked Wray whether “witch hunt” was a fair description of the probe by Mueller.

“Senator, I can’t speak to the basis for those comments,” Wray said.

“I’m asking you as the future FBI director,” Graham interjected, “do you consider this endeavor to be a witch hunt?”

“I do not consider director Mueller to be on a witch hunt,” Wray said.

During an exchange with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, of California, Wray further described Mueller as a “consummate straight-shooter and someone I have enormous respect for.” “I would be pleased to do anything I could to support him [in his investigation].”

Does Trump have the authority to fire Mueller?

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Graham asked whether the president had the authority to oust Mueller, considering that Trump acknowledged removing Comey in an effort to derail the Russian probe.

“I don’t know the law on that,” Wray replied.

“Can you get back to us and answer that question?” Graham replied sharply.

Feinstein also raised concerns that the president might meddle in Mueller’s investigation. “If you learn of any machinations to tamper with that investigation, you would let us know,” Feinstein asked.

“Understood,” Wray replied.

Did you discuss Comey’s performance or firing with anyone in the White House?

Wray said he did not discuss anything related to Comey’s ousting with anyone in the White House. The closest his discussions came to Comey, Wray said, was during a conversation with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Rosenstein, Wray recalled, made the observation that when he was first contacted about the job, special counsel Mueller had been “appointed to deal with the issue” and “that made a better landscape” for him to consider taking the position.

Why was Comey fired?

“I don’t know,” Wray told Leahy. “I’m not familiar with all the information the president may or may not have had. There’s a special counsel investigation. Led by Director Mueller. That issue falls within his investigation.”

“You don’t think Director Comey is a nutjob, right,” asked Sen. Al Franken, of Minnesota.

“That’s never been my experience with him,” Wray replied.

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Do you have the right experience to lead the department, especially when it comes to complex issues regarding terrorism and espionage?

Wray’s resumé pales in comparison to his predecessors’ before they took the top FBI post. Comey, for example, served as assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia during the Clinton administration, U.S attorney for the Southern District of New York during the Bush administration, and later the deputy attorney general. Prior to Mueller’s appointment as FBI director, he served as U.S. attorney, assistant attorney general for the criminal division, and acting deputy attorney general.

“Most of my four years in the leadership of the department were focused on those issues,” Wray said, noting that during that time, the counterterrorism and counterespionage sections were part of the criminal division, so they were among his oversight responsibilities. “Fifty percent of my time in those four years were focused on those kinds of issues.”

Should Donald Trump Jr. have met with an attorney associated with the Russian government?

Graham read out loud the 2016 emails that Trump Jr. tweeted out on Tuesday confirming that he had met with the operative after they offered “dirt” that could potentially upend Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Graham prodded Wray to tell the assembled senators that “any threat or effort to interfere with our elections from any nation-state, or any non-state actor” ought to be reported to the FBI. Wray obliged, and advised the senators present that if they ever find themselves in similar circumstances, they should contact the FBI.

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What are your views on “enhanced interrogation” tactics or torture?

Feinstein pressed Wray on the extent to which he was involved in the “Torture Memos,” which were drafted by then-Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo and signed in August 2002 by Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee.

The memos advised the CIA, the Pentagon, and President Bush that interrogation techniques like waterboarding and sleep deprivation, may be legally permissible under expanded presidential authority in light of the War on Terror. At this time, Wray was part of a team tasked with protecting national security in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, Wray’s name appears 29 times in documents associated with the response to the terror attacks.

“Torture is wrong and ineffective,” Wray said. “Both my predecessors had a policy, Mr. Comey and Mr. Mueller, which I think is the right policy, that the FBI is going to play no part in any techniques of that sort.”