Christopher Wray certainly knew what he was getting into.
As the eighth director of the FBI, the Atlanta lawyer took over an agency in the cross-hairs of congressional ethics probes, internal investigations and a series of incendiary tweets by the president himself. Not to mention, Wray was succeeding an old colleague, James Comey, whom President Donald Trump unceremoniously dumped from the same post last May.
Since being confirmed in August by a 92-5 vote, in a rare showing of bipartisan support in the Senate, Wray has encountered one landmine after another. But former colleagues say the 50-year-old former federal prosecutor in Atlanta is up to the task.
“He didn’t go in there with blinders on,” said Amy Weil, an Atlanta lawyer who once worked with Wray in the U.S. Attorney’s Office here. “He took the job for all the right reasons. He’s not somebody who’s swayed by political winds. He has a very good compass and it’s always been pointed in the right direction.”
Wray was front-page news nationwide Thursday after he went public with a request that the White House block the release of a classified memo that alleges abuses by the FBI in the Russia investigation.
The Washington Post, quoting unidentified administration officials, reported Thursday afternoon that Trump was expected to release the memo but with redactions sought by the FBI. The New York Times, also citing unidentified officials, said Trump had approved the release for Friday but was not expected to ask for redactions.
So the White House is now at loggerheads with the FBI — and more specifically, with Wray.
On Wednesday, after private entreaties to the White House failed, the FBI went on the offensive, saying in a statement it has “grave concerns about the material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”
Wray has also confronted internal tensions at the bureau. As this tumultuous week began, his deputy director, Andrew McCabe, abruptly stepped aside after meeting with Wray. McCabe told friends he felt pressured by Wray to leave his position, The New York Times reported. Wray also discussed with McCabe a forthcoming inspector general review of how the bureau investigated Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, published reports say.
This development prompted some to question Wray’s ability to remain independent, given the number of pointed and taunting tweets by Trump as he openly questioned McCabe’s impartiality in the Clinton probe.
“FBI Director Wray needs to testify in public about his role over the last few months during Trump’s attacks on McCabe,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, who opposed Wray’s nomination, said in a tweet. “Has he stood by his deputy director or given in to pressure?”
The next day, in an internal message to FBI personnel, Wray said it would be inappropriate for him to talk specifics about the inspector general’s review.
“But I can assure you that I remain staunchly committed to doing this job, in every respect, ‘by the book,’” Wray wrote, according to NBC News. “I will not be swayed by political or other pressure in my decision making.”
Larry Thompson, deputy attorney general under President George W. Bush, said Wray will be true to that pledge.
“Chris would not have taken this job if he didn’t have a lot of respect for the FBI,” Thompson said. “He wouldn’t take the job if he wasn’t prepared to defend the FBI against what he might consider to be inappropriate criticism.”
Thompson, who worked with Wray at the Atlanta firm King & Spalding, took Wray to the Justice Department to serve as associate deputy attorney general in 2001.
“We worked side by side after 9/11,” Thompson said. “There wasn’t any playbook as to what you should do when 3,000 of your fellow citizens are murdered. But Chris was very deliberate, made sound decisions, had good judgment and never got panicked. I relied upon him a great deal.”
As for what’s going on now, Thompson said, “(Wray) just needs to shut out the noise and do his job. I have complete confidence that’s what he’s going to do.”
Joe Robuck was an FBI agent in 2000 when he worked with Wray, then a federal prosecutor, to obtain corruption convictions against the city of Atlanta’s former chief investment officer and a politically connected businessman.
“He’s an incredibly intelligent person who’s truly a patriot,” Robuck said. “As a lawyer, he’s a chess player in how he approaches whatever is in front of him.”
Now retired, Robuck said he and his former FBI colleagues have been deeply disturbed by some of the news coming out of the bureau. He specifically mentioned the scandal involving FBI officials Lisa Page and Peter Strzok, who were having an affair and exchanging text messages disparaging Trump during the campaign. Strzok was later ousted from the ongoing Russian investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
“I think Chris has got a daunting task ahead of him to put the bureau back in the good light it needs to be in,” Robuck said. “But he’s up to it. You’re not going to wear him down. His work ethic is off the charts.”
Robuck also said that, as long as he’s known him, Wray has never expressed strong positions on political issues.
But Wray is unquestionably a Republican. Over the past decade, he has contributed more than $30,000 to GOP candidates in state, local, congressional and presidential races. (He did not contribute to Trump’s presidential campaign, according to federal filings.)
From the get-go, Wray has insisted he will remain faithful to the rule of law.
At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Wray was asked: What would you do if the president asked you to do something illegal or unethical?
“First, I would try to talk him out of it,” Wray answered. “If that failed, I would resign. There isn’t a person on this planet whose lobbying or influence could convince me to just drop or abandon a properly predicated and meritorious investigation.”
Later, Wray was reminded that Trump had called Mueller’s Russian investigation “the greatest witch hunt in political history.” Do you agree? Wray was asked.
“I do not consider Director Muller to be on a witch hunt,” he answered matter-of-factly.
In December, Wray was tested again when Trump, in a tweet, said the FBI’s “reputation is in Tatters — worst in History!”
Days later, Wray appeared before the House Judiciary Committee and was asked about Trump’s tweet.
“The FBI that I see is tens of thousands of brave men and women who are working as hard as they can to keep people they will never know safe from harm,” Wray answered. “The FBI that I see is people, decent people, committed to the highest principles of integrity and professionalism and respect.”
Then, Wray gave a statement in which he may have unwittingly foreshadowed what was going to play out this week with McCabe’s surprising departure.
“Now do we make mistakes?” Wray said. “You bet we make mistakes. Just like everybody who is human makes mistakes. When we make mistakes, there are independent processes like the independent, outside inspector general that will drive and dive deep into the facts surrounding those mistakes. And when that independent fact-finding is complete, we will hold our folks accountable if that’s appropriate.”
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