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Christopher Wray Faces Challenges as New FBI Director

Senate confirms new director on 92-5 vote, showing bipartisan support

The Senate confirmed Christopher Wray as the FBI director, 92-5. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)
The Senate confirmed Christopher Wray as the FBI director, 92-5. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Christopher Wray will lead the FBI as it wrestles with challenges such as cybersecurity and domestic terrorist investigations, as well as the political fallout from the bureau’s role in the 2016 presidential election and its ongoing investigation into President Donald Trump’s campaign.

The Senate’s bipartisan support for Wray, 50, is rooted in his reputation as well as experience with national security issues and major investigations as a federal prosecutor, a Justice Department official after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and as a lawyer in private practice.

But it was Wray’s statements about protecting the FBI’s independence that reassured Democrats, who have aired concerns about the White House interfering with investigations into possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russian operatives.

“Quite simply, he is as professional and as nonpolitically associated as anyone can be going into this position,” Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal, a Judiciary Committee member and one of the most vocal opponents of Trump nominees, said Tuesday on the Senate floor.

Tuesday’s confirmation vote of 92-5 is a rare moment of bipartisanship for a Trump nominee, especially because of the president’s abrupt firing of James B. Comey from the FBI post in May and his reasons for doing so.

Wray starts a 10-year term at the helm of the bureau, which has 30,000 agents and open counterterrorism investigations across the nation. Both House and Senate appropriators have increased funding for the FBI in fiscal 2018 spending bills, saying the real and evolving threats of cybercrime, terrorism and espionage must be addressed.

The job will be made even tougher in the unsettled political environment after his predecessor’s exit. Among other reasons, Trump said he fired Comey over the handling of the Russia investigation and called Comey “a show boat” and “grand stander,” and charged “the FBI has been in turmoil.”

Comey later would challenge the White House’s characterization of the bureau as having low morale, in Senate testimony where he also described how Trump asked him to squash part of the Russia probe and repeatedly asked for Comey’s loyalty.

Fact-Driven Impartiality

Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, said on the Senate floor that he was impressed with Wray’s plain-spoken, candid answers to questions about how he would respond in similar situations.

“And I take him at his word when he says that his ‘loyalty is to the Constitution and the rule of law’ and when he says that he will ‘never allow the FBI’s work to be driven by anything other than the facts, the law, and the impartial pursuit of justice. Period — full stop,’ ” Grassley said.

Wray will be expected to steady the bureau even as the president criticizes the Justice Department and FBI. Trump recently has publicly criticized Attorney General Jeff Sessions — something Democrats characterized as bullying the nation’s top law enforcement officer — and acting FBI director Andrew McCabe, who was Comey’s deputy.

The president also warned Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III about straying too far in his probe of possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russian officials during the 2016 election, prompting speculation he could try to fire Mueller.

Before the vote, Democrats highlighted how Wray said at his confirmation hearing that he would resist efforts to interfere with the FBI, and that if Trump asked him to do something unethical or unlawful he would first try to talk him out of it.

They also noted Wray said he would provide the resources necessary to support the Russia probe and said the investigation is not a “witch hunt.”

Trump has used that phrase to characterize the probe, which seems to be broadening by the week.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said on the Senate floor Tuesday that Wray showed he will follow the law and believes in an independent FBI.

“Given this important time in our nation’s history for law enforcement and for the FBI, I don’t think we would expect anything less,” the Minnesota Democrat said. “I believe he is the right choice at this time for our country.”

Wray’s nomination also got strong bipartisan support from law enforcement and national security officials, including former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson.

“The incredible men and women of the FBI deserve a leader who inspires confidence. They deserve a fresh start,” Thompson wrote in an op-ed column Tuesday in The Washington Times. “With Mr. Wray, they are getting exactly what they — and the country — need: a man of unquestionable integrity, vast experience, and the leadership ability to restore trust in the world’s greatest law enforcement agency.”

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