WASHINGTON — As a new wave of reports has reignited controversy concerning Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, a legislative panel met Wednesday with the man poised to become the new head of the FBI.
Senators pressed Christopher Wray, President Donald Trump’s nominee, for almost five hours on his relationship with the White House, his position on torture, the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and more.
The hearing came two months after Trump abruptly fired previous FBI chief James Comey. This week, the White House was embroiled in controversy again over reports that the president’s son met with a Russian operative to collect information damaging to Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign.
Despite the political turmoil surrounding the FBI leadership change and Russian meddling probe, inside the committee room, lawmakers across the political spectrum were cordial.
Every seat in the high-ceilinged, wood-paneled committee room was filled for the hearing, but the room was quiet as lawmakers and Wray made opening remarks.
Wray pledged that under his leadership the FBI would be driven by facts and would be impartial.
“My loyalty is to the Constitution and to the rule of law. Those have been my guideposts throughout my career, and I will continue to adhere to them no matter the test,” he said.
Democrats and Republicans alike asked the nominee about his thoughts on the investigation into Russian election interference and his loyalty to the president.
Many senators pressed Wray on whether he would keep the FBI independent from influence from the White House.
In a rapid-fire series of questions, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked about Wray’s thoughts on Donald Trump Jr.’s recently released emails concerning Russian information during the campaign and his opinions of some of Comey’s leadership decisions.
Under questioning, Wray told the panel he did not believe that the investigation special counsel Robert Mueller is leading is a “witch hunt,” as Trump has claimed.
“Do you realize that you’re stepping into the role of the director of the FBI at one of most contentious times in the history of American politics?” Graham said.
There have been many contentious moments in American history, Wray said, but “I think this one certainly ranks up there.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., opened his line of questioning by saying he is “troubled” by Trump’s firing of Comey. He said there is a need to understand Russian involvement in the 2016 election in order to prevent it going forward.
“I don’t care if they’re helping a Republican or a Democrat, no country, especially an enemy, like Russia should be able to interfere with our … country,” Leahy said.
Leahy pressed Wray on his independence from the White House, saying the administration “may be expecting your loyalty” — a reference to a hearing last month when Comey told the committee the president had demanded his loyalty during a private dinner.
“My loyalty is to the Constitution, to the rule of law and to the mission of the FBI,” Wray said. “No one asked me for any sort of loyalty oath at any point during this process, and I sure as heck didn’t offer one.”
Leahy asked Wray what he would do if Trump were to ask him to do something illegal or unethical.
“First I would try to talk him out of it, and if that failed I would resign,” Wray said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., pressed Wray to commit to alerting the committee if he learns of efforts to tamper with the investigation into Russian interference in the election, led by Mueller.
He said he would consult officials before reaching out to the committee to ensure he was not jeopardizing the investigation, but that any effort to tamper with the investigation would be “unacceptable and inappropriate.”
Through the course of the hearing that stretched into the afternoon, Wray answered questions about child pornography, human trafficking, the role of the FBI in addressing the opiate crisis, and providing internal protections for whistleblowers within the agency.
Many senators lauded Wray’s resume, which includes working as a prosecutor and heading the criminal division of the Department of Justice during George W. Bush’s presidency. In recent years, he’s been in private practice, where his clients have included New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie during the scandal over closures of lanes on the George Washington Bridge in 2013.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chair of the committee, said he expects to move the confirmation process along quickly to get the position filled.
Late Wednesday morning as he left the room, Leahy reflected on past leadership of the federal law enforcement agency.
“When I was a young prosecutor I had some interactions with J. Edgar Hoover, and they were frightening,” Leahy said, pointing to the authoritarian tendencies widely attributed to Hoover.
“It’s influenced my thinking,” he said.
Leahy said he was satisfied with Wray’s responses to his questions and was receptive to the nominee.
“Unless something extraordinary came out of here that I’m not anticipating, I would expect to support (Wray),” he said.