Christopher Wray faces a stark question from skeptics as he prepares to take on one of the toughest jobs in the Trump administration: Where does your loyalty lie?
The cloud of fired FBI Director James Comey will loom large over Wray’s confirmation hearing to replace him on Wednesday, as will the perpetual onslaught of revelations involving the federal probe into potential collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
“After Comey was fired, as the president said, to stop the Russia investigation, there are some fundamental questions that need to be asked about any director of the FBI,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said in an interview Tuesday. “Where is your commitment? Is your commitment to the law, or to the president who chose you?”
Wray, a lawyer and former Department of Justice official, can expect to be peppered with questions about whether he can be sufficiently independent from President Donald Trump and how he will handle the sensitive investigation that is dogging the Republican administration and distracting GOP-led Washington from accomplishing its ambitious policy agenda.
Here are six key questions Wray is likely to face during his hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday:
Does your loyalty lie with the president who nominated you?
Wray confronts the same high-wire balancing act that other Trump picks, including Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, faced during their hearings: demonstrating his independence from Trump without alienating him.
But for Wray, that question is even more dicey considering the circumstances in which Comey was fired. The former FBI director testified Trump told him during a private dinner that “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty” — and Wray is likely to be pressed on whether he, too, faced a similar loyalty oath.
“To be very blunt, he’s appointed by an administration that is under investigation for obstruction of justice,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), another member of the Judiciary Committee who will grill Wray on Wednesday. “So why is that? Why was he appointed? What has been said to him? And what has he said to others in the course of the interviews that were conducted leading to his nomination?”
Those are answers that will be closely watched not only by Democrats on the committee, but also Republicans. Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina said Wray’s ability to show some daylight from the Trump administration will be “critically important.”
“The FBI is one of the most respected law enforcement organizations in history,” said Tillis, a GOP member of the committee. “And a part of that is, they have — with few exceptions — proven to be highly independent. I want that.”
Did Comey handle the Clinton email probe appropriately?
Comey may be long gone, but expect him to be a consistent presence at his successor’s confirmation hearing.
After all, Trump initially premised his decision to fire the FBI chief because of his very public handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server. It may have been an unusual justification considering the “lock her up” chants that became synonymous with the Republican’s 2016 campaign mega-rallies — but it also broached a sensitive topic inside the bureau and across the Justice Department.
Comey himself testified in May, before he was fired, that he was “mildly nauseous” over the notion he played such a significant role in the election’s outcome. The FBI director had announced in July 2016 that the Clinton case should be closed without prosecution. Then he made a new statement reopening it in October during the closing days of the race because of new messages that had emerged during the course of a separate probe involving sexually explicit materials on the computer of disgraced former Rep. Anthony Weiner, who was married at the time to senior Clinton campaign aide Huma Abedin.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein cited Comey’s “serious mistakes” on the Clinton case in his memo to Trump in May explaining how the FBI’s “reputation and credibility have suffered substantial damage” — a document the president used in justifying the firing and for dampening morale in the bureau, though Trump later cited Comey’s work on the Russia probe as a key reason.
Key senators who have met privately with Wray say they expect the nominee to raise the issue.
“He’ll talk to how basically the way that Director Comey handled this was completely unconventional and why it’s important to restore regular respect for the Department of Justice’s role, vis-à-vis the FBI,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, who met with Wray on Monday. “I think it’ll be an important point.”
Some senior FBI officials struggled with how much to blame Comey, and many pushed back against the idea he was to blame for the bureau’s morale.
A former senior DOJ official during the administration of President Barack Obama predicted that both Democrats and Republicans will be looking to Wray to explain how closely he intends to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps, asking: “Are you going to be a celebrity FBI director like people thought Comey was?”
Will you give special counsel Robert Mueller sufficient space to conduct his probe?
Mueller, a former FBI director, is now the point person for all Justice Department work involving Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, and it means that the major questions involving this active and politically sensitive criminal investigation are best handled by Mueller.
The FBI itself does retain a strong role in the Mueller case — its cyber and counterespionage agents are among those detailed to the Mueller effort. And the acting FBI chief told a House appropriations subcommittee last month that “a great number of folks” were working with Mueller and “will do everything necessary to deliver the resources and meet the needs that he has to do that work.”
“For me, the major point is, will a special prosecutor be supported in doing his job and protected from interference?” Blumenthal said. “I may ask, you know, whether he’d quit if Mueller was fired.”
But beyond having to talk about logistics like staffing levels, Wray will have an easy escape hatch if senators get too specific with their questions.
“It gives him a way to deflect and defer,” said John Pistole, a former FBI deputy director and head of the Transportation Security Administration who was among the candidates Trump interviewed this spring for the top job before ultimately picking Wray.
What will you do to clamp down on leaks about the Trump administration?
Much like the rest of Washington, GOP senators have closely watched the steady drip of information published by news outlets that have embarrassed the Trump White House.
But Republicans are chiefly concerned with how the leaks may raise national security risks — and they’ll be looking to Wray for an answer.
“I told him that I’m very concerned about leaks and how he’s gonna handle those and he understands the problem and I think he will speak to that,” said Cornyn, who was himself in the mix for the FBI job.
Republicans have repeatedly railed against leaks on everything from Trump’s private conversations with foreign leaders and details about the ongoing federal Russia probe. Last month, Sessions — to whom Wray will report if he’s confirmed — testified that investigations into leaks are already underway.
“We’ve got to get better at tracking and then having a consequence where people are ultimately responsible for” leaks, Tillis said. “But I think it’ll be very difficult for him to answer in specifics except to have him go on record saying it’s unacceptable and they’ve got to tighten it up.”
How involved were you with the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policies?
One part of Wray’s record Democrats are sure to dissect: the four years he served at the Justice Department under President George W. Bush, primarily after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
He’s likely to be asked about his views on controversial Bush-era anti-terror tactics and a series of legal memos drafted by then-DOJ official John Yoo that laid out the rationale for using enhanced interrogation techniques against terrorism suspects. So far, there is little in the public record that suggests where Wray’s personal views on the issue lie, and Wednesday’s hearing will be a chance for him to defend the controversial policies or distance himself from them.
“He was around during the post-9/11 decision-making process,” Durbin said of Wray, who served at DOJ from May 2001 to May 2005. “It’s not a red flag, but it certainly has to be asked.”
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee who spearheaded a landmark Senate report in 2014 on the CIA’s interrogation program, also said she plans to ask about Wray’s time at DOJ.
During his 2003 confirmation hearing for assistant attorney general, Wray vowed that the government “must do everything within our power, within the Constitution and the law” to prevent future terror attacks. One year later, Wray reportedly urged Comey to “please give me a heads up so I can jump with you” when Comey, then the deputy attorney general, and other top DOJ officials clashed with the Bush White House over its warrantless wiretapping program.
Senators may also scrutinize Wray’s background while in private legal practice. His international firm, King & Spalding, has handled cases for Rosneft and Gazprom – two major state-controlled energy companies in Russia. Other clients of the Atlanta-based firm include SIBUR Holding, a major Russian gas processing company that counts Russian President Vladimir Putin’s son-in-law as a major shareholder, according to a 2015 Reuters report.
Micheline Tang, a spokeswoman for the firm, said Wray has not represented Russian companies or individuals during his 12 years at King & Spalding. And some Democratic senators say while Wray’s firm’s ties to Russian companies are fair game for questioning, they don’t see it as a major issue.
How aggressive will you be toward Russian attempts to hack future U.S. elections?
Intelligence experts say Russians, emboldened by the havoc they caused in 2016, will be back again to meddle in the 2018 and 2020 American elections. “No doubt at all in my mind,” former Obama-era Director of National Intelligence James Clapper recently told CNN.
Enter the FBI, which along with the Homeland Security Department and other national security agencies will be primed to play a key role safeguarding the ballot boxes and the overall integrity of the campaign process.
But with Trump still casting doubt on Russian interference the last time Americans voted, coupled with the president’s suggestion following last week’s summit on the sidelines of the G20 with Vladimir Putin that the two countries could work together on cybersecurity measures involving elections, the FBI chief could find himself in an awkward spot commenting about his attempts to combat new Russian interference.
Wray can also expect to get broader cyber-related questions about Russia given media reports and a joint DHS-FBI statement last week indicating Russian government hackers may have been behind recent intrusions at U.S. nuclear power stations and a company that makes control systems for the electric utility industry.
John Bresnahan contributed to this report.