Trump chooses former Justice Department official Christopher Wray to head the FBI

After a tumultuous month at the White House and a public search that often resembled a reality television show, President Trump took to Twitter early Wednesday to announce a mainstream choice to replace fired FBI Director James B. Comey: a former Justice Department prosecutor and white-collar criminal defense lawyer who is likely to win Senate approval.

Trump’s surprise choice of Christopher A. Wray, who led the Justice Department’s criminal division from 2003 to 2005, caught House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and other senior Republicans off guard.

While at the Justice Department, Wray led headline-grabbing investigations of corporate fraud, including the prosecution of top officials at Enron Corp., the energy giant that went bust in 2001. He also played a role in the agency’s scramble to track terrorists after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

While in private practice, Wray represented embattled Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey during the state’s Bridgegate scandal.

In the weeks since Trump abruptly fired Comey on May 9, the president has interviewed a slew of candidates to head an agency that is investigating Trump’s campaign and at least one of his top White House aides for dealings with Russia, FBI inquiries that Trump has denounced as a “witch hunt.”

At least six candidates — including three current and former members of Congress — later withdrew their names from consideration. While none described it as a snub, the chorus of “thanks but no thanks” highlighted Trump’s mounting difficulty in filling dozens of top-level positions in his administration.

Wray, 50, is likely to face tough questions in his confirmation hearings as to whether he can maintain the FBI’s traditional independence in the Trump era. He also may be grilled by Democrats on whether he helped prepare or approve Justice Department memos for the George W. Bush administration that critics said sanctioned torture.

“His loyalty pledge must be to the Constitution and the country, not to Donald Trump," said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), a member of the Judiciary Committee.

Trump’s early-morning tweet appeared aimed at least in part at seizing public attention at the start of two days of nationally televised congressional hearings that will try to determine whether Trump sought to pressure Comey and other top U.S. officials to get the FBI to back off the various Russia investigations.

But the president’s announcement was overshadowed when the Senate Intelligence Committee unexpectedly released a seven-page statement by Comey that detailed his account of nine one-on-one meetings and phone calls with Trump before being fired.

Wray has most recently worked as a litigation partner at King & Spalding, an international law firm with 900 lawyers in 19 offices in the United States, Europe, the Middle East and Asia, according to the firm’s website. The married father of two called it “a great honor” to be chosen to lead the FBI.

“I look 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,” Wray said in a statement issued by the White House.

In the same statement, Trump described Wray as “an impeccably qualified individual” who would serve the nation “as a fierce guardian of the law and model of integrity.”

In a rare bit of bipartisanship, some of Trump’s toughest critics applauded the choice.

“Considering some of the more political candidates who were being floated, and the president’s abysmal judgment, the country should breathe a sigh of relief that he chose a talented, credentialed, respected, deeply experienced individual like Wray,” said Norman Eisen, a former ethics czar to President Obama who has harshly criticized Trump.

Eisen said he got to know Wray during the federal prosecution of officials from Enron, the former Houston-based energy giant whose leaders were charged with fraud, money laundering, insider trading and other crimes after the $64-billion company collapsed in what was then the nation’s largest bankruptcy.

Eisen, who worked on the defense team while Wray oversaw the prosecution, called Wray tough but fair. He said Wray avoided trying to capitalize on public anger but did not pull punches against an energy company seen as close to Bush’s administration.

Another frequent Trump critic, Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), called Wray "tough, qualified and principled.”

Trump’s use of a tweet to announce his FBI pick solidified Twitter’s role as an official mode of communication at the White House. He did so days after several senior advisors, including Kellyanne Conway, said reporters were paying too much attention to the president’s tweets.

The choice of Wray surprised many lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will review his nomination — and even surprised some in the White House. Trump’s press office took more than five hours to issue a four-paragraph news release.

Born in Massachusetts, Wray graduated from Yale University in 1989 and three years later from Yale Law School, where he edited the Yale Law Review. After a year clerking for a federal appeals judge, he became a federal prosecutor in 1997 in the Northern District of Georgia, which includes Atlanta.

He came to Washington in 2001 to join the Justice Department as an associate deputy attorney general. Two years later, he was promoted to lead the department’s criminal division.

In 2004, during a showdown between the Bush White House and the Justice Department over a secret surveillance program, Wray was among the officials who threatened to resign if the secret program was renewed without changes.

When then-Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft lay in a hospital bed and White House aides were headed to his room to pressure him to renew the program, Wray stopped Comey in the hallway to join those standing up to the White House, according to a 2008 account in the Washington Post.

"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," he said. In the end, Bush backed down and the program was changed.

In his highest-profile case since leaving government, Wray represented Christie in “Bridgegate,” a case that helped sink the governor’s hopes of winning national office.

In 2016, three of Christie’s top aides were convicted of deliberately creating a massive traffic jam at the George Washington Bridge, a major artery into New York, to punish a local mayor who had declined to endorse Christie in his state reelection bid.

Christie, a former U.S. attorney from New Jersey, was not accused of wrongdoing. He described Wray on Wednesday as the “gold standard” for lawyers.

“When I had to retain legal counsel during a very, very troubling, confusing and difficult time for me, I made one phone call and that was to Chris Wray,” he told reporters. “I can’t give a better recommendation than that.”

Before choosing Wray, Trump spent a month considering a long list of politicians, former prosecutors and others. A parade of candidates trooped through the Justice Department and White House for interviews in an unusually public display.

At one point last month, Joe Lieberman, a former U.S. senator from Connecticut who ran for vice president on the Democratic ticket in 2000, was considered the front-runner. But he soon withdrew his name, as did Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.).

Others who pulled their names from the shortlist included Michael J. Garcia, a New York judge and former U.S. attorney; former FBI official Richard McFeely; and Alice Fisher, a former assistant attorney general.

Trump settled on Wray after interviewing him in the last week at the White House along with John Pistole, a former director of the Transportation Security Administration. The president said little about Wray in speeches later Wednesday in Cincinnati that focused on infrastructure and healthcare.

noah.bierman@latimes.com

Twitter: @noahbierman

joseph.tanfani@latimes.com

Twitter: @JTanfani

Times staff writer Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.

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