Trump's choice to head FBI backs special counsel and promises independence

President Trump’s nominee to head the FBI during the highly sensitive investigation into Russia’s efforts to sway the 2016 election pledged Wednesday to protect the bureau from political interference, saying he wouldn’t bow to pressure from anyone to quash the probe — even the president.

In testimony that repeatedly put him at odds with the president’s often angry assaults on the Russia investigation, Christopher Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he believes Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel now running the probe, is the “ultimate straight shooter.”

“I would consider an effort to tamper with Director Mueller’s investigation to be unacceptable and inappropriate,” he said.

Responding to questions from Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the committee’s top Democrat, Wray said he would blow the whistle on such an attempt, if he could do so without compromising the case, saying it “would need to be dealt with very sternly indeed.”

“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 or confronted with something that is either illegal, unconstitutional or even morally repugnant. And you have to be able to stand firm to your principles,” he said at another point.

“There is not a person on this planet whose lobbying or influence could cause me to drop a meritorious and properly predicated investigation.”

The fate of the Russia probe and Wray’s willingness to withstand political pressure were at the center of the hearing. His answers pleased both Republicans and Democrats, many of whom thanked Wray for being willing to step into the job now, when some of Trump’s closest associates face a widening criminal investigation.

Throughout the hearing, senators seemed less interested in cross-examining Wray than in sending warnings to Trump to avoid interfering with Mueller or the Russia probe.

“You’re going to be director of the FBI, pal,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said at one point, pointing to this week’s disclosures that Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. met last summer with a Russian lawyer after being told she had damaging information about Hillary Clinton that was part of a broader Kremlin attempt to help his father’s candidacy.

“Here’s what I want you to tell every politician,” Graham said: “If you get a call from somebody saying a foreign government wants to help you by disparaging your opponent — tell us all to call the FBI.”

Wray agreed that was “the kind of thing the FBI would want to know.”

If confirmed by the Senate, which seemed a virtual certainty after the hearing, Wray would replace James B. Comey, fired by Trump on May 9 after Comey resisted what he said was Trump’s request to back off on the Russia inquiry — and dodged what he described as the president’s pressure to declare his loyalty.

The firing led to the Justice Department’s appointment of Mueller, himself a former FBI director, as a special counsel. He heads a team of prosecutors who are directing the investigation into Russia’s role in the election, any possible collusion by people close to Trump’s campaign as well as whether the president was trying to obstruct justice with Comey’s firing.

The pressure facing Trump’s administration only intensified this week after revelations first published by the New York Times about Trump Jr.

Wray carefully avoided criticizing the president’s son, saying he hadn’t had time to read the emails or even news stories about them. But under pointed questioning by Graham, Wray said he had a different opinion about the investigation than the president, who repeatedly has called the probe the “single greatest witch hunt in American political history.”

“I do not consider Director Mueller to be on a witch hunt,” Wray said.

What about Trump’s description of Comey as a “nut job?” asked Sen. Al Franken (D- Minn.)

“That hasn’t been my experience with him,” said Wray, who has worked closely with Comey in the past and made clear his admiration for him.

And he said that he had “no reason whatsoever to doubt the assessment of the intelligence community” that Russia had attempted to interfere with the 2016 election in order to help elect Trump.

Wray testified that no one in the administration has asked him for a loyalty oath or pressured him about the Russia case. In two conversations with Trump and others in the White House, the topic of Russia never came up, Wray said.

“No one has asked me for any kind of loyalty oath at any point in this process, and I sure as heck did not offer one,” Wray said. “My loyalty is to the Constitution and the rule of law.”

Last year, Comey angered many Democrats and Justice Department officials when he held a news conference and declared that Hillary Clinton’s handling of emails as secretary of State was “extremely careless,” even though the FBI would not recommend that she be charged with any criminal offense.

Wray declined to criticize Comey directly, citing an inspector general investigation of how the then-director handled the Clinton case. But he said he doesn’t think the FBI director should be offering opinions on people who aren’t charged.

“I think those policies are there for a reason, and I would follow them,” he said, referring to Justice Department policies that limit what prosecutors and FBI officials say about criminal cases.

From 2003 to 2005, Wray served as head of the department’s criminal division under President George W. Bush — a time when Mueller was FBI director and remaking the agency in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and Comey was deputy attorney general.

In 2004, when Comey and Mueller confronted White House officials in a showdown over a secret surveillance program, Wray was one of the officials who sided with the two men and threatened to resign if the program was renewed without restrictions.

Wray said he agreed to join the group threatening to resign after Comey told him there were legal and constitutional questions about the program — even though he didn’t know the classified details. He said he trusted Comey and the others.

“Having worked side by side with those people, and knowing that these were hardly shrinking violets in the war on terror, there was no hesitation, in my mind, as to where I stood,” he said. “And I stood with them.”

Wray also worked at the Justice Department when Bush administration lawyers wrote memos that critics say sanctioned torture of terrorism detainees. Wray said he never saw those memos.

“My view is that torture is wrong, it's unacceptable, it's illegal and I think it's ineffective,” Wray said, adding that he would not permit the FBI to use such tactics.

Wray said he spent much of his tenure at the department focused on counter-terrorism cases. He also supervised high-profile investigations into corporate wrongdoing, including the prosecution of executives of Enron Corp., the energy company that collapsed in 2001.

Wray now is a criminal defense lawyer in the Atlanta-based law firm of King & Spalding, where he earned a $9.2-million partner’s share last year, according to his financial disclosure. Among his more prominent clients was New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who hired him after the Bridgegate scandal broke in 2015.

If he is confirmed, Wray said, he will recuse himself from any involvement in cases involving the firm’s clients.

He said he realized the difficulty of the job of taking over the FBI at an extraordinary time in American political history.

“This is not a job for the faint of heart, and I can assure this committee I am not faint of heart,” he said.

joseph.tanfani@latimes.com

Twitter: @jtanfani

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UPDATES:

2:15 p.m.: This article was updated with additional quotes and details from the hearing.

9:35 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details from the hearing.

8:51 a.m.: This article was updated with details from the hearing.

The article was originally published at 4 a.m.

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