Flying under the radar of all the hurricane force coverage of President Trump’s inability to extricate himself from the tar like substance called #Russiagate, is the story of Trump’s replacement for James B. Comey at the helm of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
I will be nominating Christopher A. Wray, a man of impeccable credentials, to be the new Director of the FBI. Details to follow.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 7, 2017
Wray’s testimony in Senate confirmation hearings has brought the nomination somewhat back into focus.
Prior to June 7th, all sorts of strange possibilities were floated as picks for the position of the ousted Mr. Comey. Joe Lieberman, Chris Christie – even Trey Gowdy.
The fellow that Trump’s subordinates secured his sign off on, Christopher Wray, is by various credible accounts, competent and qualified – and worst of all, has a general record of integrity, meaning that he will not likely be a subject of Trump’s attempts to circumvent the ongoing investigation. A brief look at Wray’s record should underline this.
Wray spent time at Justice during President George W. Bush’s White House from 2001 to 2005, responsible for running the criminal division and overseeing enforcement in the war on terrorism after the 9/11 attacks.
One incident during Wray’s term at the Justice Department is enlightening. Both James Comey and Robert Mueller were strongly opposed to the Bush (43) White House plans to influence hospitalized Attorney General John Ashcroft to re-authorize warrant-less surveillance. So much so that both Mueller, then Director of the FBI and Comey, Deputy Attorney General, at the time, began discussing tendering their resignations rather than violating the law of the land.
In a book covering Dick Cheney’s Vice Presidency, “Angler”, the author Barton Gellman quotes Mr. Wray as having told Comey in a brief hallway meeting, “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.”
Some of Wray’s colleagues have spoken of their view of his work off the record as reported by Slate. One told Slate, “Chris Wray is a man of integrity with a deep commitment to the rule of law.” Another said, “He’s very good at convincing people of a wiser course, but he’s highly principled, and if he can’t stop the train, he’ll find a way to blow the whistle and get off.”
Others reflect on Wray’s work habits openly. According to Jack Goldsmith, another fellow assistant A.G. at Justice with Wray, Wray is “smart, serious, and professional.”
Goldsmith goes on to put the Comey firing in context with Wray as a replacement pick. “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.”
One of Wray’s projects at the D.O.J. was coordinating the prosecution of Enron and its key executives for securities fraud, among other charges. Former FBI assistant director, Tom Fuentes, says of Wray’s potential to stave off political pressure, “In the Enron case, (Wray) demonstrated that no interest was too big to prosecute,’’ Fuentes said. “I think people will recognize that and give him a chance.’’
On balance, not everything in Wray’s record is beyond controversy. Wray worked with Chris Christie in the N.J. Federal Attorney’s office, when they coordinated an investigation of Bristol-Myers Squibb. Part of the outcome of the investigation involved an informal settlement agreement that found $5 million being donated to Seton Hall University – a school Christie had attended.
House Member Bill Pascrell (D-NJ), said of the announcement of Wray’s nomination:
“I hope the Senate will examine Mr. Wray’s role in the Justice Department’s use of deferred and non-prosecution agreements. I am particularly interested in press reports of Mr. Wray’s involvement with the controversial Bristol-Myers Squibb agreement, especially in light of Attorney General Sessions’ decision this morning to outlaw third-party payments such as the one then-U.S. Attorney Christie directed from BMS to his alma mater.”
Some are also uncomfortable with Wray’s role with a private law firm, where he accepted the assignment to represent Governor Christie during the “Bridgegate” debacle.
Christie himself characterizes the relationship in very positive terms. “When I had to retain legal counsel during a very, very troubling, confusing, difficult time for me, I made one phone call, and that was to Chris Wray. So I can’t give a better recommendation than that.”
Wray helped Christie navigate his way out of a criminal indictment, so his affection for Wray is understandably undiluted.
Among Trump’s comments about Wray as a pick for Comey’s job, was this whale of an irony laden statement. “I know that he will again serve his country as a fierce guardian of the law and model of integrity once the Senate confirms him.”
Why didn’t Trump pick a circus freak nominee that he could manipulate instead of a guy with a reputation as a straight shooter and not vulnerable to coercion?
The most likely explanation is that trying to shoehorn a Trump loyalist into the high visibility post of FBI Director, would be pouring kerosene on an already very out of control fire. Likely the parties involved in the recommendation all but insisted on Mr. Wray’s appointment as a push back against the narrative of Trump’s attempts at obstruction of justice.
By all appearances, if you take Wray’s testimony before a Senate panel this week as firm indicators, Wray is set to go by the book and resist influence from the White House. He also notably defended his friend and colleague, Special Counsel Robert Mueller when asked by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC):
“Do you believe that, in light of the Don Jr. email and other allegations, that this whole thing about the Trump campaign and Russia is a witch hunt. Is that a fair description of what we’re all dealing with in America?”
Wray, after attempting a bit more of a nuanced answer, which Graham would not accommodate, told Graham straight up, “I do not consider Director Mueller to be on a witch hunt.”
Some questions do linger. They have to do with the law firm that Wray is a partner in – King and Spalding. King and Spalding provide legal services to two major Russian energy behemoths, Rosneft and Gazprom.
This is significant because principals in both firms are very tightly connected to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Rosneft is directly affected by the sanctions put in place against Russia and state controlled enterprises by the Obama administration and the FBI is currently examining possible overtures made by both Rosneft and Gazprom executives to the Trump campaign in exchange for lifting them.
Even if Christopher Wray did not personally handle any of the business of either energy giant while at King and Spalding, existing rules could require he recuse himself from active management of the ongoing Russiagate investigation.
A major factor in the decision of Trump advisors to recommend the withdrawal of former Senator Joe Lieberman from consideration as Comey’s replacement, was Lieberman’s professional affiliation with Kasowitz, Benson Torres – a law firm that has long provided legal counsel to Donald Trump, thus tainting Lieberman’s objectivity and independence in the post of FBI Director.