5 big questions for the FBI director nominee
Posted July 12
When President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey two months ago, Christopher Wray was not a familiar name to many outside legal circles.
That was then.
Wray will sit under the bright lights on Capitol Hill Wednesday as the Senate judiciary committee takes up his nomination to lead the FBI.
But those who know him don't expect drama from the former federal prosecutor turned white-collar defense lawyer.
"This man is completely unflappable," said Jodi Avergun, a partner at Cadwalader who previously worked with Wray under President George W. Bush. "He will not be fazed."
Nevertheless, senators are likely to use to Comey's firing as the springboard to launch into a series of questions on Wray's loyalty to the President, his view of the FBI's independence, and how he plans to navigate the bureau's relationship with Special Counsel Robert Mueller. They may also interrogate him on his time in Bush's Justice Department.
Here are five questions to watch for when the sparks begin to fly at 9:30 a.m. ET on Wednesday:
1. Has the President ever asked you for loyalty?
After a highly public firing, Comey revealed in June his belief that Trump wanted to create some "create some sort of patronage relationship."
In his written testimony, Comey described in detail how their dinner in January troubled him "given the FBI's traditionally independent status in the executive branch" and that the President said to him: "I need loyalty, I expect loyalty."
Yet Trump flatly denied asking Comey for a loyalty pledge last month, saying, "Who would do that?"
Wray will undoubtedly face questioning from committee Democrats regarding his own conversations with Trump leading up to his nomination and whether or not he was asked to pledge his allegiance to the President, according to Senate sources.
Those who worked alongside Wray, however, say that he does not bend to political pressure.
Avergun recalled powerful defense attorneys well-connected to the republican party arguing their cases to Wray when he led DOJ's criminal division, but he was unmoved by their influence or status.
"He's used to withstanding entreaties from powerful people," Avergun said. "He will do the right thing and walk away if his ethics or integrity are questioned."
2. How would you respond if the President told you to drop an investigation?
Trump and Comey also have different stories when it comes to the investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Comey testified that Trump asked him to drop the FBI's investigation into Flynn -- specifically as it related to calls with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition. Comey further explained he did not view Trump telling him to "let it go" to refer to the wider Russia investigation, but "regardless, it was very concerning, given the FBI's role as an independent investigative agency."
Trump's attorney, Marc Kasowitz, maintains the President never, "in form or substance, directed or suggested that Mr. Comey stop investigating anyone."
Regardless of what happened with Flynn, watch for senators probing Wray on how he would handle the situation if confirmed as FBI director should it arise.
3. Is Mueller on a 'witch hunt'?
The President's position on Mueller's investigation into Russia's role in the 2016 election is no secret.
"I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt," he tweeted in June.
How Wray navigates senators' questions related to the Russia investigations will be particularly noteworthy given that the FBI is already lending "a great number of folks" to assist in the investigation, according to testimony from acting bureau chief Andrew McCabe last month.
At least one senate Democrat, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday that he met with Wray and planned to ask him questions about the possibility of Mueller's dismissal as well, following speculation that Trump could try to fire the special counsel.
While Blumenthal acknowledged that Trump has "no direct authority to fire Mueller," the senator said he is concerned that the President could "appoint a deputy attorney general if Rod Rosenstein refuses and resigns to do that task and I want to know from Christopher Wray what he would do if that happens if he is confirmed as FBI director."
Wray and Mueller also share a history -- both were reportedly among the group who were prepared to resign after White House officials tried to persuade Attorney General John Ashcroft to sign off on a warrantless domestic surveillance program when hospitalized in 2004, which could come up at Wednesday's hearing.
4. Would you ever usurp the Attorney General's authority?
When Trump fired Comey, he had backup from his Justice Department.
Rosenstein penned a memo detailing how Comey flouted department protocols last year by announcing his own conclusions from the Hillary Clinton email investigation without authorization from DOJ higher-ups.
Comey said he had no regrets about the situation, but senators will want to know if Wray would do the same and how he'll avoid the FBI being used for political ends.
Barry Sabin, a partner at Latham & Watkins who served as chief of DOJ's counterterrorism section, said Wray has tactfully maneuvered his way around tough situations in the past.
"He's wise enough to see the long road," Sabin said.
5. What about those Bush years?
Wray first joined the Justice Department in 2001 under Bush, and found himself in the midst of several stressful showdowns.
He faced sharp questioning from senate Democrats at a judiciary committee hearing in 2003 as lawmakers learned that Wray had briefed Ashcroft on key details of the investigation into who revealed the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame.
One Senate aide, involved in preparations for Wednesday's hearing, also said Wray would likely draw scrutiny for any involvement he might have had in domestic surveillance programs used during the Bush administration.
But don't expect to see Wray rattled by senators delving into his past.
"He's a lawyer's lawyer," says Maureen Killion, former director of Enforcement Operations for the Justice Department's Criminal Division, who worked with him closely. "He's so smart -- he was often the only adult voice in the room."