In a surprise announcement on Twitter Wednesday morning, President Trump said he would name former federal prosecutor Christopher Wray to be the next director of the FBI.
If confirmed, Wray would be the bureau’s eighth director. He would enter the position with significant experience in federal law enforcement. Wray previously served as as the head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division from 2003 to 2005 during the Bush administration, where he oversaw the prosecution of multiple post-9/11 terrorism cases and the Enron investigation. He also worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in northern Georgia during the late 1990s.
Critics of President Trump’s handling of the FBI gave Trump some initial praise for the choice. “I think Trump’s firing of James Comey was a travesty,” Jack Goldsmith, who headed the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel when Wray led the Criminal Division, wrote on Lawfare. “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.”
Norm Eisen, a former Obama ethics czar and frequent critic of Trump, described Wray as a “good choice,” citing their time together working on the Enron investigation a decade earlier. “Wray probably the best choice from the [White House] short list,” Matthew Miller, a former Justice Department spokesman during the Obama administration, tweeted in reaction to the news. “His record in the Bush DOJ deserves scrutiny, but he's a serious, respectable pick.”
Since leaving the Justice Department in 2005, Wray has worked in private practice at King & Spalding, a high-profile law firm that specializes in corporate litigation and white-collar crimes. He carved out a reputation there for representing corporations facing regulatory-compliance issues. Among his most recent clients was New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who he represented during the Bridgegate scandal.
The announcement comes one day before Wray’s would-be predecessor James Comey testifies before Congress about his dramatic firing last month. Comey is expected to testify tomorrow about Trump’s reported efforts to persuade him to drop an investigation into Michael Flynn, the former national-security adviser. Among the key questions Wray will face in his confirmation hearing is whether he will be able to resist similar attempts to pressure him.
Trump’s hunt to replace Comey has been a tumultuous one. The president suggested before his week-long trip to the Middle East and Europe last month that Joe Lieberman, a former Democratic senator from Connecticut, was his frontrunner for the job. But Lieberman’s possible nomination received a cool reception on Capitol Hill, and when Trump returned from his overseas trip, the White House said it would restart the search.
Wray would lead the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election under the oversight of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who took over the overall case last month, if confirmed by the Senate. The two men are well acquainted with one another: Wray, Mueller, and Comey previously worked together during the Bush administration when Mueller led the FBI and Comey served as Deputy Attorney General.
It was in those positions that the three men took part in one of the most dramatic moments in Justice Department history. In 2004, the Bush White House planned to reauthorize a warrantless-surveillance program known as Stellar Wind. Comey, who was acting attorney general at the time while John Ashcroft was hospitalized, questioned its constitutionality and enlisted Mueller for support.
As the program’s expiration date neared, Comey and Mueller drafted letters of resignation to proffer if Bush reauthorized the program over their objections. Most of the top officials in the Justice Department and the FBI drafted similar letters, with Wray reportedly among them. Bush, who had been unaware of the imminent revolt until Comey and Mueller told him they would resign, added new limits to the program to avert it.
If confirmed, Wray could face similar clashes with the White House. Trump’s growing frustration with the sprawling Russia investigation reportedly led him to ask Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, and Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, to intervene with Comey to end the investigation in March. The president also reportedly asked Comey to pledge his personal loyalty to him as part of a broader effort to persuade the former FBI director to curb the probe into Flynn and other Trump campaign officials. Senators will undoubtedly ask whether Wray faced similar pressure from the president who could put him in charge of the nation’s preeminent law-enforcement agency.