Best known for representing Gov. Chris Christie, Christopher Wray would take over the FBI at a moment of turmoil.
At the most decisive moment in the Justice Department’s post-9/11 history, Christopher Wray, then head of its criminal division, did not want to be left out.
In 2004, James Comey, then the department’s number-two official, and the FBI director, Robert Mueller, were on the verge of resigning because of a stand-off with the Bush administration over the reauthorization of what they believed to be an illegal surveillance program. Wray stopped Comey in the hallway of the Justice Department headquarters to tell him that he, too, was willing to resign.
“Look, I don’t know what’s going, but before you guys all pull the rip cords, please give me a heads-up so I can jump with you,” Wray told Comey, according to Garrett Graff’s The Threat Matrix.
On Wednesday, President Donald Trump announced that he will nominate Wray to lead the FBI at a moment of profound turmoil for the bureau, which is leading a sprawling counterintelligence and criminal investigation of Kremlin-ordered meddling in the 2016 election and possible collusion between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia.
Early signs indicate FBI agents are welcoming his appointment. One retired veteran FBI official with extensive experience in counterintelligence said Wray is a respected figure within the bureau. “His experience and reputation are impeccable,” he said.
In Wray, Trump has tapped a veteran of the war on terror and a star of the Republican legal establishment. When he was selected to run the Justice Department’s criminal division in 2003, Wray was a mere 36 years old — the youngest lawyer to lead the division in at least two decades, according to a 2003 profile of Wray in the National Law Journal. The appointment catapulted Wray, who has undergraduate and law degrees from Yale, into a central role in prosecuting the war on terror and an initiative to crack down on white-collar crime.
Harvard Law School Professor Jack Goldsmith, who overlapped with Wray at the Justice Department, called him “smart, serious, and professional” and a welcome departure from other names floated for the position, such as former Sen. Joe Lieberman.
As a high-powered criminal defense lawyer at the firm King & Spalding since his resignation from the Justice Department in 2005, Wray hasn’t shied from taking on controversy. He represented New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in a criminal investigation examining the politically motivated closure of traffic lanes to create gridlock in the districts of his political opponents. (Wray’s other clients include a collection of Fortune 100 pharmaceutical, healthcare, and financial firms.)
Wray helped Christie escape charges in the so-called “Bridgegate” investigation, which saw several of his aides earn jail time, and the New Jersey politician may have provided entre for Wray into Trump’s inner circle. Christie led Trump’s transition effort — before he was unceremoniously fired.
With congressional Democrats questioning whether the FBI can maintain its independence from the White House, Wray’s background is sure to come under exacting scrutiny in coming weeks. His alliance with Comey and Mueller during the early days of the Bush administration’s prosecution of the war on terror is sure to be cited as an example of Wray’s commitment to independence. Mueller now oversees the FBI’s Russia probe as a special counsel for the Justice Department.
But that same Bush-era history has civil libertarians gearing up for a fight. In a statement, Faiz Shakir, the national political director of the American Civil Liberties Union, questioned whether Wray has the “independence, even-handed judgment, and commitment to the rule of law that the agency deserves.”
Shakir called on Wray to clarify his role in the Bush administration’s legal justification for the use of torture.
As a lieutenant to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, Wray served in the Bush administration’s war on terror, which he has described as a punishing experience. A 2002 article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution described his daily routine: Wake at 5 a.m., dress by flashlight to avoid waking his wife and children, arrive to FBI headquarters by 7 a.m. for a daily briefing on terror threats, and return home sometime after 10 p.m.
“It is a relentless grind, every day. You have to adjust to that being a permanent pace,” Wray told the paper. “You have to see that this is a marathon, not a sprint.”
Today, the man who remade the bureau to fight the war on terror has taken over its most politically explosive investigation. Though Mueller is in charge of the Russia probe, Wray would, as director, likely be coordinating with his predecessor on leads and resource allocation.
Wray is no stranger to explosive investigations with major political consequences. As head of the criminal division of the Justice Department, Wray provided briefings to Ashcroft about the progress of an investigation into the unauthorized disclosure by White House officials of the name of an undercover CIA officer, Valerie Plame.
According to a 2004 American Prospect article, Wray provided Ashcroft with details from an interview of Bush political guru Karl Rove, who had advised Ashcroft during several of his political campaigns. The briefings eventually prompted Ashcroft’s recusal and the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate the leak.
Wray’s selection to lead the FBI — a job that will require Senate confirmation — comes as his predecessor in the job prepares to offer explosive testimony on Capitol Hill. On Thursday, Comey, who was fired as FBI director last month, will tell the Senate Intelligence Committee that Trump pressured him to drop the bureau’s investigation of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and to offer public assurances that the president was not the target of a bureau investigation.
Comey’s testimony and his allegations of interference in an ongoing investigation that is examining the very highest reaches of American power. Trump son-in-law and consigliere Jared Kushner is of particular interest to FBI investigators, and will likely make Wray’s confirmation one of the most contentious in the bureau’s history.
The Senate gatekeepers for Wray’s confirmation — who said they were blindsided by the pick — aren’t quite swooning over Wray’s selection. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called him a “suitable candidate.” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, said she needed time to review his credentials.
Arguably the biggest case of Wray’s career came when he oversaw the investigation of corporate malfeasance at energy firm Enron. The task force that was convened to investigate the case uncovered one of the worst cases of fraud in U.S. history.
In announcing the indictment in 2004 of former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling, Wray, who supervised the task force investigating the company, offered a set of principles that many lawmakers would undoubtedly likely wish him to apply again when he takes over the reins at an agency investigating America’s businessman president.
“No corporate executive — not even the CEO — is above the law,” Wray said at the time. “The Department of Justice and our Task Force partners will work tirelessly to hold accountable all those who participate in corporate fraud, no matter how devious the scheme, and no matter how highly placed the perpetrators.”
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