It became clear on Wednesday in Washington that the circumstances under which Christopher Wray is applying for the office of FBI director are unusual. Questions that would have been central at any other time, like the ones about his position on torture, only played a secondary role. In the end, the four-hour hearing kept revolving around the same great issue. Given the situation, could Wray guarantee that under his lead, the FBI would operate as an independent agency — free from the influence of the White House? Sen. John Kennedy from Mississippi went straight to the point: “I don’t want you to exhaust yourself trying to make political friends up here.”
The future head of the country’s most important investigative authority could not have been under greater pressure. After all, he is taking office in the face of difficult omens. His predecessor, James Comey, was fired by Donald Trump in May while in the middle of an investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. elections, as well as possible cooperation between Team Trump and Moscow’s government. Initially, the reason was made out to be Comey’s allegedly inappropriate handling of Hillary Clinton’s email affair. During a TV interview, Trump admitted, though, to also having had the ongoing investigation in the back of his mind.
Shortly after that, the U.S. media reported that the president had repeatedly pressured Comey into guaranteeing him his loyalty and into dropping some elements of the investigation. Comey himself confirmed these accounts in his Senate hearing. Ever since The New York Times recently published new revelations about a meeting between the president’s oldest son and Russian representatives, the questions of the past months have once again become more urgent. “America is listening about what is going on in this hearing,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham reminded people.
For Wray, it was therefore not just a matter of convincing the senators in attendance of his integrity and independence. In his appearance before the committee, he also addressed the American public and FBI employees, whose morale has been very low for months. Wray made a visible effort to clear all doubts about his own integrity. Wray repeatedly assured them that if at any point the president were to ask him for his loyalty or wanted to interfere with his work in any way, he would draw the necessary conclusions. “My loyalty is to the Constitution and the rule of law.” According to him, the FBI director must be willing to resign when there's doubt that this can no longer be guaranteed.
On paper, the New York lawyer looks very promising. The 50-year-old with a degree from elite Yale University initially worked as a lawyer, but soon switched to public service. As assistant U.S. attorney in Atlanta, he played a part in making the slow administrative machine fit for the dangerous world of the new millennium after the 9/11 attacks. Eventually, in 2003, he was appointed by George W. Bush to the Justice Department, where he headed the Criminal Division, which deals with stock and insurance fraud as well as with money laundering. Wray was responsible for the investigation into the Enron scandal, one of the biggest business scandals in U.S. history, which led to the energy corporation’s bankruptcy and to prison sentences for several managers.
In view of this record, Wray has supporters on both sides of political Washington, something that was apparent on Wednesday as well. Despite this, during those four hours, the dark chapters of the justice system during the Bush years when Wray was part of the institution as well, were raised, especially by the Democrats — such as controversial torture methods, the large-scale tapping operations and the abuse of inmates at Abu Ghraib. Still, it looked like the priority was to show solidarity and trust for a man who may have to withstand the pressure of a president who rarely observes the limits of his own authority.
Wray Behaves with Conspicuous Caution
However, Wray was visibly wary, as if he were painfully aware of the unusual balancing act of his future role. Despite all the claims about not taking political interests into account as FBI director, the 50-year-old was noticeably cautious in his answers. He did confirm that obstruction of justice is a serious crime. Nonetheless, he refused to give an opinion as to whether there is currently any evidence that obstruction has occurred, or to whether Comey’s dismissal was justified. Wray also appeared to put unnecessary effort into weaseling out of questions about the controversial behavior of his predecessor during the election campaign, Jeff Sessions’ role or the president’s accusation that the investigation is a witch hunt. It looked like the concern was not so much avoiding friendships as avoiding making new enemies ahead of time.
This caution, which appeared forced, was especially noticeable during the exchange with Republican Sen. Graham. The senator wanted to know whether Wray thought Russia was America’s friend or enemy — a matter Capitol Hill seldom agrees on. Still, Wray hesitated. At Graham’s pressing, he finally concluded that a country wanting to interfere in the elections of another country indeed constitutes an adversarial act. Wray did not make a statement about the latest revelations about the president’s son, either. He only said that presumably it would have been smart if Donald Trump, Jr. had immediately informed the FBI instead of agreeing to the meeting. His excuse for this vague stance was that the meetings with the senators had left him without the time to read the news on this matter.
That should soon change. Wray successfully completed his first task on Wednesday, after more than four hours. The senators in attendance reaffirmed their support for the future FBI director at the end and thanked him for his willingness to take office, especially at this moment. There are few obstacles now to his official appointment. The real job will begin only afterward, under the eyes of the public and of the president. “This,” according to Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s appropriate summary of the day, “is probably as good as it gets, so enjoy it.”