Trump to nominate ex-Justice Department official Christopher Wray to lead FBI

President Trump will nominate Christopher Wray to replace former FBI Director James Comey. USA TODAY

WASHINGTON - President Trump will nominate former Justice Department official Christopher Wray for FBI director to replace James Comey, who was abruptly fired last month as he conducted an investigation into possible collusion between Trump campaign associates and Russia.

The president made the announcement early Wednesday morning via Twitter.

"I will be nominating Christopher A. Wray, a man of impeccable credentials, to be the new Director of the FBI," Trump tweeted. "Details to follow."

A former chief of the Justice Department's Criminal Division from 2003 to 2005, Wray served during the administration of President George W. Bush. During his time in the government, Wray was a member of the administration's Corporate Fraud Task Force and oversaw the fraud prosecutions of former executives at Enron Corp.

"Chris combines a brilliant legal mind, outstanding accomplishments and a proven record of public service,'' Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Wednesday. "His exceptional abilities were recognized, and he was brought to the Department of Justice headquarters....where he performed superbly during the incredibly intense period after 9/11.''

Now in private practice, Wray is a partner in the law firm of King & Spalding, overseeing the firm’s government investigations practice. The unit represents companies and individuals in white-collar criminal and regulatory enforcement matters.

Wray is a personal attorney for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a major supporter of Trump who is often mentioned as a possible future high-ranking administration post.

Wray represented Christie during the so-called "Bridgegate" controversy, in which three Christie aides were convicted of closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge to punish a New Jersey mayor who had opposed the governor. Christie was never charged with any wrongdoing.

If confirmed by the Senate, Wray would take over a job with global responsibilities. But the most prominent ongoing FBI investigation — the investigation into whether Trump associates coordinated with Russians trying to influence the 2016 presidential election by hacking Democrats — will continue to be managed by the Justice Department’s special counsel Robert Mueller.

Mueller, a former FBI director, was appointed to lead the Russia investigation last month following Comey's May 9 dismissal. Various congressional committees are also investigating.

Tom Fuentes, a former FBI assistant director, said Wray’s greatest challenge — beyond the bureau’s far-flung investigative missions — will be an effort to wall off the FBI from political pressures that shadowed Comey's firing.

Comey is set to testify Thursday about his communications with President Trump, who allegedly pressed Comey to shut down the bureau’s investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. He is also expected to refute Trump’s previous assertions that Comey assured him three times that the president was not a subject of the FBI’s wide-ranging investigation, according to a person familiar with his actions.

“In the Enron case, (Wray) demonstrated that no interest was too big to prosecute,’’ Fuentes said, referring to Wray’s management of the complex corporate fraud prosecution. “I think people will recognize that and give him a chance.’’

By timing the announcement one day before former director Comey is due to testify, "clearly this is an effort by the president to try to distract attention from our hearings," said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee on MSNBC. While Warner said he didn't know Wray personally, he noted the former Justice official has a good reputation.

After a search that focused on political figures – including former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman – Trump went with a law enforcement professional for the post.

Ken Wainstein, former chief of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, described Wray as “an exceptionally strong choice.’’

“Chris Wray has an excellent record of public service,’’ said Wainstein, who also had been a candidate for the top FBI job. “He has seen the job and the Justice Department in all its missions. He was a line prosecutor. And he oversaw the Justice Department’s Criminal Division in the aftermath of 9/11, which is critical to deal with the counterterrorism challenges that exist now.’’

Wray’s selection also highlights an ironic supporting role the then-young Justice Department official played in a 2004 incident that vaulted Comey to national prominence.

After intervening in a late-night White House effort to persuade a seriously ill Attorney General John Ashcroft to reauthorize a secret warrantless surveillance program in his hospital room, Comey, who was then deputy attorney general, encountered Wray, who was criminal chief, in a Justice Department corridor. Rumors swirled that top officials — including Comey and then-FBI Director Robert Mueller – were preparing their resignations over the White House action.

According to the book, “Angler” which examined Dick Cheney’s vice presidency, Wray stopped Comey to relay a message: “Look, I don’t know what’s going on, but before your guys all pull the rip cords, please give me a heads-up so I can jump with you."

While Wray doesn't have the "range of experiences" that Comey and Mueller before him brought to the FBI, he is "smart, serious, and professional," with a background in federal criminal law, said Jack Goldsmith, a former assistant attorney general who worked with Wray during the Bush administration.

"I think Trump’s firing of James Comey was a travesty," Goldsmith wrote on the Lawfare blog. "But Wray is a good choice, a much better choice than any name I previously saw floated, and a much better choice than I expected Trump to make."

Senators in both parties said Trump's announcement about Wray caught them off guard, and that they first heard about it via the president's tweet.

Some lawmakers said Wray's background seems solid, but cautioned that he needs to demonstrate he can act independently of the White House.

"FBI nominee Wray has solid credentials – now this job will require independence & guts to stand up to political interference," tweeted Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

 

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., called Wray "tough, qualified, and principled," but added that "I look forward to sitting down with him to discuss both his commitment to our justice system and his vision for restoring public trust."

Thomas O'Connor, president of the FBI Agents Association which endorsed former Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., for the job, said the group "looks forward'' to meeting with Wray.

"As the key stakeholder in this process, it is critically important that the FBIAA understands his views on the FBI, special agents, and the criminal and national security threats that agents combat daily,'' O'Connor said. 

Contributing: Eliza Collins

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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