The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly confirmed Christopher Wray to lead the FBI on Tuesday afternoon, greenlighting the Atlanta attorney to take the helm of an agency currently embroiled in political turmoil.
The vote was nearly unanimous at 92-5, and yet it still reflected the division that has gripped the halls of Congress in recent years and has not eased its hold in the first six months of Donald Trump’s presidency. According to the Congressional Research Service, the most votes opposing a previous nominee for FBI director was one.
Senators also OK’d Alabama lawyer Kevin Newsom to be a judge on the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Wray, a former Justice Department official during the George W. Bush administration, won friends on both sides of the aisle after assuring senators he would maintain his independence from Trump.
“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 at his July confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “My loyalty is to the Constitution and to the rule of law. … Anybody who thinks that I would be pulling punches as FBI director sure doesn’t know me well.”
Wray will take control of the law enforcement agency, which is currently investigating the Trump campaign’s alleged contacts with Russian officials before and after last year’s election, roughly three months after Trump unceremoniously fired then-FBI Director James Comey, reportedly because Comey would not assure the president of his personal loyalty.
The politics surrounding that investigation dominated Wray’s confirmation hearing.
Wray, who once worked with Comey and Robert Mueller, the special counsel also investigating Trump, promised to resign if the president asked him to stop or curtail an investigation and he could not “talk him out of it.”
“No one asked me for loyalty,” Wray said, “and I sure as heck didn’t offer it.”
Wray’s nomination was considered so uncontroversial that only a few senators bothered to even bring it up during the chamber’s designated debate period Tuesday.
“There have been issues from time to time with the FBI, and we need someone to do the job well and without impropriety,” Georgia U.S. Sen. Johnny Isaskson said in a speech on the Senate floor. “Christopher Wray is that type of person.”
Wray, 50, cut his teeth as a federal prosecutor in Georgia’s Northern District. There, he led the prosecution of a drifter convicted of setting fire to five rural churches in Georgia and hundreds more in six other states between 1995 and 1999. He also worked alongside fellow prosecutor Sally Yates, who later went on to become the acting attorney general in the early days of the Trump administration and was fired by the president for defying him on his travel ban.
Wray has a reputation for being a low-key co-worker and a steady hand, according to his onetime colleagues.
As head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, Wray became involved in several high-profile investigations and helped bring cases against people active in U.S. terror cells, the D.C. snipers and former officials at energy giant Enron.
He later returned to Atlanta to work in private practice for the mega-firm King and Spalding, where he has represented some of Georgia’s largest corporations, including SunTrust Banks and the pulp and paper company Georgia-Pacific, according to his ethics disclosure.
Wray’s personal ties to the city also run deep. He married into one of the Atlanta’s most prominent families, the Howells, who once owned The Atlanta Constitution and for which Howell Mill Road is named. He and his family live in Buckhead.
More recently, Wray represented New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie during the “Bridgegate” scandal after members of his staff were accused of ordering lane closures on the George Washington Bridge into New York City as retaliation against a political enemy.
Federal judge confirmation
Senators on Tuesday also voted 66-31 to confirm Newsom’s nomination to fill a long-open seat on the busy 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which oversees federal cases in Georgia, Alabama and Florida, and feeds into the U.S. Supreme Court.
Newsom, an attorney for the Birmingham, Ala.-based law firm Bradley Arant Boult Cummings, previously worked as Alabama’s solicitor general and as a law clerk to now-retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter.
He will replace Judge Joel Dubina, who took semi-retired status in 2013, on the 12-person panel. Since Dubina is from Alabama, Trump’s pick for the lifetime appointment also had to be from there.
After cutting a deal with Georgia’s Republican senators to fill two vacant Georgia spots on the court, then-President Barack Obama sought to fill Dubina’s position with a candidate of his own in early 2016. But the nomination was blocked at the time by Alabama’s two Republican U.S. senators, and time eventually ran out.
Republican senators have criticized Democrats for slow-walking many of Trump’s judicial and sub-Cabinet nominees in recent weeks.
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Staff writer Rhonda Cook contributed to this article.