WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork/AP) — The Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a confirmation hearing for Christopher Wray, President Donald Trump’s nominee to be the next FBI director.
As CBS2’s Dick Brennan reported, Wray faced a wide array of questions on how he would handle running the FBI. He was questioned on everything from Russian meddling to being independent from the White House.
Wray, a former federal prosecutor and a criminal defense lawyer, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he plans to lead an independent FBI if confirmed to run the nation’s top law enforcement agency.
“I 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,” Wray said.
U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Wray has an “impressive legal career” and seems qualified for the demanding job of leading the nation’s top law enforcement agency.
Grassley says it is vital for the FBI director to be independent. And he says Wray’s record shows he is committed to independence.
Wray said he would lead the agency “without fear, without favoritism and certainly without regard to political influence,” adding that “anybody who thinks that I would be pulling punches as FBI director sure doesn’t know me very well.”
He says there’s only one right way to lead the FBI, and that’s with “strict independence” and by being faithful to the Constitution.
“If I am given the honor of leading this agency I will never allow the FBI’s work to be driven by anything other than the facts, the law and the impartial pursuit of justice,” Wray said. “My loyalty is to the Constitution and to the rule of law, those have been my guideposts throughout my career and I will continue to adhere to them no matter the test.”
Wray was picked by the president to lead the bureau after he fired James Comey, who claimed Mr. Trump pressured him to drop an FBI investigation into National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.
Wray testified that he has never discussed Comey’s firing with the White House. Wray said he also never discussed Comey or his abrupt dismissal with the Justice Department or the FBI.
Wray says the issue only came up once, when Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told him he had appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel to oversee the investigation into Trump campaign ties to Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. That happened after Comey’s firing.
Wray says “that made for a better landscape for me to consider taking on this position.”
U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) asked Wray what he would do if the president asked him to do something unlawful or unethical.
“First, I would try and talk him out of it,” Wray said, “and if that failed, I would resign.”
Wray said people would be mistaken if they confused his low-key demeanor for a lack of resolve.
“You can’t do a job like this without being prepared to either quit or be fired at a moment’s notice if you’re asked to do something that is illegal or even morally repugnant,” Wray said.
Wray was also asked about a comment by Comey where he said he would not feel comfortable being around President Trump alone.
“There obviously are situations where the FBI director needs to be able to communicate with the president on national security matters, for example, but in my experience it would be very unusual for there to be any kind of one-on-one meeting between any FBI director and any president,” Wray said.
Wray said he supports special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s election meddling and possible connections to Trump’s campaign. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) asked Wray if he considered the effort a “witch hunt.”
“I do not consider Director Mueller to be on a witch hunt,” Wray replied.
President Trump used that phrase in a tweet again Wednesday morning, defending his son, Donald Trump Jr., who met with a Russian lawyer to get dirt on Hillary Clinton during the campaign last year.
Trump wrote: “My son Donald did a good job last night. He was open, transparent and innocent. This is the greatest Witch Hunt in political history. Sad!”
Trump Jr. went on Fox News Tuesday night to explain the meeting.
“In retrospect, I probably would have done things a little differently,” he said.
But his attorney says nothing happened in the meeting.
“It was rather unremarkable in the sense that nothing transpired,” said attorney Jay Sekulow. “Nothing illegal took place.”
Meanwhile, President Trump said in an interview Wednesday that he thought Russian President Vladimir Putin would actually have “preferred” Clinton over him in the White House, CBS2’s Jessica Layton reported.
“So I keep hearing he’d rather have Trump. I think probably not,” Trump said, “because when I want a strong military, she wouldn’t spend the money on the military.”
Graham asked Wray about Trump Jr., taking a meeting with the Russian lawyer, and whether he should have alerted the FBI.
“To the members of this committee any threat or effort to interfere with our elections from any nation state or any non-state actor is the kind of thing the FBI would want to know,” Wray said.
CBS News has confirmed that Mueller’s team will review the Trump Jr. emails and the meeting as part of the investigation into Russian meddling.
Wray works in private practice for the King & Spalding law firm. He represented Christie in the George Washington Bridge lane-closing investigation. Two former Christie aides were convicted of plotting to shut down access lanes to the bridge in 2013 for political retaliation against the mayor of Fort Lee who wouldn’t endorse Christie.
The confirmation hearing comes on the same day as the sentencing of the scheme’s mastermind.
Wray was also integral in the Department of Justice’s response to the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, playing a role in the oversight and legal operational actions in the war on terrorism.
When announcing his choice last month, Trump called Wray “a man of impeccable credentials.”
FBI directors are appointed to 10-year terms.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)