In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, as Robert Mueller and James Comey weighed resigning to protest a Bush administration domestic surveillance program, one Justice Department colleague volunteered to go with them: Chris Wray.
“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,” Wray told Comey, according to a book recounting the controversy.
On Wednesday, President Donald Trump nominated Wray - an Atlanta attorney - to lead the FBI. If confirmed, he would follow in the footsteps of both Mueller and Comey, taking the helm of a bureau at time of deep political turmoil.
In an early-morning tweet announcing the selection, Trump called Wray an “impeccably qualified individual.”
The president announced his pick to replace Comey the day before the FBI director he fired is to appear before Congress to answer questions about whether Trump urged him to drop the federal investigation into Russian ties the to Republican’s campaign.
Supporters of the 50-year-old Wray described him as levelheaded and low key and said he would remain independent in the face of any White House pressure.
“He will do what he thinks is right,” said Joe Whitley, former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia who was general counsel to the Department of Homeland Security at the same time Wray was involved in post 9/11 terrorism investigations.
“I don’t see him as someone who can be pushed around.”
Wray’s roots in Atlanta run deep. He cut his teeth as a federal prosecutor in the Northern District of Georgia. After a stint in Washington at the Department of Justice where he led the criminal division, he returned to Atlanta and has worked in private practice for King and Spalding, among the city’s most powerful law firms. He and his family live in Buckhead.
Wray married into one of Atlanta’s more prominent families. Howell Mill Road was named for the family of Wray’s wife - Helen Howell Wray. Her great-grandfather, Clark Howell, once owned The Atlanta Constitution,
Wray has perhaps been best know recently for representing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie during the investigation into the closing of lanes on the George Washington Bridge as political payback.
A graduate of Yale Law School, Wray was an assistant U.S. attorney in Atlanta from 1997 until 2001 when he went to Washington as a top deputy under former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson in President George W. Bush’s administration.
There he was also involved in several high profile investigations. Wray helped bring cases against individuals at energy giant Enron and HealthSouth Corp., the Washington snipers and terror cells operating in the United States.
In Atlanta, he led the prosecution of a drifter convicted of setting to five rural churches in Georgia and hundreds more in six other states between 1995 and 1999. Jay Scott Ballinger, who said he was inspired by Lucifer, was sentenced to life in prison.
“Chris is a Republican but he’s not partisan by nature when it comes to doing his job,” said former U.S. Attorney Kent Alexander, who hired Wray to prosecute in the Northern District of Georgia in 1997. “One place that needs to be non-partisan is the bureau. It’s about enforcing the law and not about politics in the White House. I think Chris will help re-create that sweet spot.”
Still, Wray’s nomination was met with skepticism in some circles.
“I am deeply concerned that the next director is being selected according to the criteria of a president, whose campaign and administration are under investigation and who fired the prior FBI Director on the basis of his zeal in investigating these matters and refusal to swear loyalty to the president,” said U.S. Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
The American Civil Liberties Union questioned the relationship Wray’s law firm has to the Trump organization. Bobby Burchfield, a partner in King & Spalding’s Washington office, was hired in January to be the Trump organization’s outside ethics adviser.
“Christopher Wray’s firm’s legal work for the Trump family, his history of partisan activity, as well as his history of defending Trump’s transition director during a criminal scandal makes us question his ability to lead the FBI with the independence, even-handed judgment, and commitment to the rule of law that the agency deserves,” said Faiz Shakir, American Civil Liberties Union national political director. “
Thompson, who brought Wray to Washington, said he had confidence in him.
“He’s a careful lawyer, and he simply does not make mistakes,” Thompson said.
Wray was head of the criminal division at the Justice Department in Washington, when Mueller, then the FBI director, and Comey, who was acting attorney general, intervened to prevent White House officials from pressuring a hospitalized Attorney General John Ashcroft to authorize the extension of the domestic surveillance program secretly launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Wray sided with Mueller and Comey, according to “Angler,” a book about former Vice President Dick Cheney.
Now, the three will be moving in a similar orbit again.
Mueller has been named special counsel investigating possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. Comey’s firing by Trump last month and his interactions with the president have become a pivotal part of the ongoing story.
“I guess Trump’s people didn’t get that far in their investigation,” University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias said of the connections.
“I think it would be a tough tight rope to walk but he needs to be independent of all of those past contacts and the president to do what needs to be done,” Tobias said.
Wray declined interview requests. But in a statement released by the White House he called the nomination a “great honor” and said he was looking “forward to serving the American people with integrity as the leader of what I know firsthand to be an extraordinary group of men and women who have dedicated their careers to protecting this country.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.