True to form, President Donald Trump announced his nominee for the new FBI director via Twitter Wednesday morning. If his pick — Christopher Wray, an alumnus of the Justice Department under George W. Bush who currently works at D.C.-based law firm King & Spalding — is confirmed by the Senate judiciary committee, he will enter into a politically fraught scene in which two of his former colleagues are major players.
So who, exactly, is Christopher Wray?
As the New York Times reported, Wray is a graduate of Yale and Yale Law School who worked as a federal prosecutor in Atlanta before joining President Bush’s Justice Department as an associate deputy attorney general in 2001. CNN reported that Wray was unanimously confirmed by the Senate in 2003 to lead the DOJ’s criminal division, where he oversaw major investigations, including the one into Enron, as well as the government’s response to terrorism after 9/11. He left in 2005 to join King & Spalding.
Given that timing, it’s unsurprising that a search for Wray’s name in the American Civil Liberties Union’s torture database turns up 83 search results, including a fax he sent regarding Iraqi detainees at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison. (The documents are almost all entirely redacted.)
Over at Wired, Garrett Graff offers some insight into Wray, particularly during his time at the DOJ:
“We all recognized that the old paradigms wouldn’t work. In some cases there weren’t any rules at all,” Wray told me just a few years after he left the Justice Department. It was also a time of unprecedented pressure.
“Every time the pager went off, every time the phone rang, you thought, ‘We’re moments away from being attacked again,’” Wray told me. “You had no idea when or where it was coming.”
It would be interesting to learn what Wray thinks of how ISIS has changed the rules. As Graff notes, if Wray is confirmed, he will be “confronting new critical threats, like cyber, that were barely on the horizon during his last stint in government.”
Because of his time at Justice, Wray has a relationship with James Comey, his recently and controversially fired predecessor, and Robert Mueller, tapped as special counsel to investigate the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia. Graff reports that Wray has deep admiration for both men. Mueller led the FBI when Wray was there, and headed the criminal division 15 years prior to Wray doing so. Comey was Mueller’s second-in-command.
He came away deeply impressed on a daily basis by Mueller. “If you’re in law enforcement, your immediate reaction was this is my kind of guy,” said Wray. “Bob Mueller has an uncanny ability to be really dedicated and idealistic about public service without being cheesy or naive.”
Graff also recounts an incident in early 2004, during which Comey was fighting with Vice President Dick Cheney over an NSA surveillance program Comey believed was unconstitutional. Mueller had Comey’s back, and “rumors had circulated of a mass resignation of the department’s senior-most leaders,” Graff writes. Wray apparently pulled Comey aside in a hallway and told him, “Look, I don’t know what’s going on, but before you guys all pull the rip cords, please give me a heads-up so I can jump with you.”
Comey ultimately took his concerns directly to Bush, who agreed to change the program.
“For Wray, the episode was a signal lesson in the necessary independence, moral compass, and leadership necessary to succeed at the Justice Department.
‘[Mueller] has a strong moral compass and I think that the great thing about strong moral compasses is that they don’t have to hand-wring, Wray told me years later. ‘When they’re uncomfortable, they know what they have to do.’”
The Times describes Wray as “a safe, mainstream pick from a president who at one point was considering politicians for a job that has historically been kept outside of politics” who “is likely to allay the fears of F.B.I. agents who worried that Mr. Trump would try to weaken or politicize the F.B.I.”
According to the Times, Wray apparently “bonded” with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie when they were both at the Justice Department. He also represented Christie in the recent Bridgegate scandal, in which Christie got off scot-free while two of his deputies were sentenced to federal prison. (A third pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.) “He managed to soothe and counsel the volatile Mr. Christie, a Trump ally,” the Times reported.
Christie told the Bergen Record last week that the president “certainly would not be making a mistake” if he tapped Wray to lead the FBI. “I have the utmost confidence in Chris. He’s an outstanding lawyer. He has absolute integrity and honesty,” Christie said.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions (whom Trump is apparently not happy with these days) also highlighted Wray’s “integrity” in a statement that concluded, “We have found our man.”
AG Jeff Sessions on FBI director nominee: “We have found our man in Chris Wray.” pic.twitter.com/w9bsl9nCFt
— Ryan J. Reilly (@ryanjreilly) June 7, 2017
Wray has a connection to another controversial figure for Trump: Sally Yates. CNN noted that Wray signed a 2015 letter to the Senate judiciary committee from partners at his law firm endorsing Sally Yates’ nomination as deputy attorney general for her “extraordinary legal skill and judgment.” Trump fired Yates and accused her of “betrayal” because she would not carry out his travel ban.
While Wray investigated white collar crime while at Justice, CNN noted that since joining the private sector, he “has represented a slew of Fortune 100 companies that have been the subject of state and federal investigations.” He currently chairs King & Spalding’s Special Matters and Government Investigations Practice Group, according to CNN.
Both the Times and CNN reported on Wray’s contributions to political campaigns. The Times prefaced the disclosure by saying Wray “is not known as a partisan,” though his donations have been to Republican candidates, including $2,300 to John McCain in 2008 and $7,500 to Mitt Romney in 2012. He did not make any donations to presidential campaigns in 2016, according to the Times, which calculated a total of $35,000 in donations to Republican candidates and committees over the past decade. CNN totaled $53,350 in donations in the same time period, including to his law firm’s political action committee and the National Republican Senatorial committee in 2016.
While detractors are highlighting Wray’s work for Christie, his competitors for the post as FBI director have been quick to praise him. Former assistant attorney general Alice Fisher, who followed in Wray’s footsteps at the criminal division and was under consideration by Trump to lead the Bureau, told CNN and the Times Wray is a “wonderful choice… who cares deeply about the institution.” Notably, in light of recent reports about Trump’s tumultuous leadership, Fisher told CNN that Wray “will provide even-keeled leadership.”
For those wondering about Wray’s thoughts on the position, the most interesting tidbits come in his own words, as reported by Graff in Wired. According to Graff, Wray once told him the ideal FBI director “is tough but fair and unfailingly honest,” and that the position of FBI director “has got to be one of the toughest jobs in government. There aren’t too many humans who could ride out that kind of stress and punishment and not let it get them down.”
- “Donald Trump to Nominate Christopher A. Wray For FBI Director” (Huffington Post, June 2017)
- “The Corruption Within Justice” (Harper’s, May 2007)