Arguably, no sweeter words could be used at this particular point in time to endorse Christopher Asher Wray, President Donald Trump’s choice to take over the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI). White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters during a press briefing late last week that the administration is in the middle of completing Wray’s nomination paperwork and intends to submit it to the U.S. Senate “as soon as it’s completed.”
The FBI’s leadership situation is mired in scandal, thanks to the manner in which the president abruptly fired the bureau’s previous director, James Comey, and his subsequent testimony on his relationship with the president. If confirmed as FBI director, Wray would oversee the day-to-day operations of an organization that serves as the country’s primary law-enforcement agency. The FBI is in charge of defending the country from terrorist and foreign-intelligence threats, and upholding and enforcing U.S. laws; the agency employs approximately 35,000 people, including special agents, intelligence analysts, and scientists.
Legal commentators and former U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) officials have lauded Wray as a sober, highly credentialed choice to lead the bureau. After graduating from Yale University in 1989 and and Yale Law School in 1992, Wray joined the law firm King & Spalding in Atlanta, Georgia, as a defense attorney. Starting in 1997, he served as a federal prosecutor for the Northern District of Georgia before moving to the Justice Department in 2001, first in the Office of the Deputy Attorney General and then as the head of the Criminal Division. He left in 2005 to resume his role as a defense attorney and partner at King & Spalding. He is a registered Republican who joined the conservative Federalist Society while in law school.
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But Wray’s background is not entirely clear of controversy.
At a time of constant breaking news and seemingly endless Trump-related hearings in both chambers of Congress, Rewire has come up with our own list of questions—including ones that relate to issues involving civil rights and equal protection under the law—we believe senators on the Judiciary Committee would be wise to ask Wray, if and when he is nominated, before confirming him to lead the FBI.
As FBI director, how will you ensure independence from this president, particularly in relation to the Russia investigation?
Less than four months separated the kiss President Donald Trump apparently blew at former FBI Director James Comey and the moment the president publicly ousted him, calling him a “showboat” who had been leading an FBI “in turmoil.” The week he fired Comey, Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt that he had the Russia investigation on his mind, saying, “When I decided to do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, ‘This Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.'” This narrative—that it was Trump’s idea to fire Comey because of the Russia investigation—contradicted the White House’s initial statement that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein recommended the firing because of Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation.
Comey recently testified under oath that Trump demanded his loyalty and eventually fired him after not receiving it. And there are various news accounts that Trump is angry with DOJ leadership, including Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for paving the way for former FBI Director Robert Mueller to take over the Russia investigation as special counsel. (The Washington Post reported last week that Mueller’s investigation has widened to include “an examination of whether President Trump attempted to obstruct justice,” which the president appeared to confirm in a tweet on Friday.)
This is the climate a new FBI director walks into: one in which the president lashes out against department heads who do not profess their loyalty or protect him from investigation. There is, then, the chance that anyone Trump would nominate to lead the FBI could bow to the president’s demands in order to keep their job.
What about any potential conflicts of interest? How will you attempt to eliminate those?
One potential conflict of interest that has already flooded initial media reports regarding Wray’s nomination is the candidate’s relationship to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R). Christie—who was a Trump campaign surrogate, remains close to the president, and is currently serving on the White House’s commission on opioid addiction—retained Wray’s law firm King & Spalding to represent him in 2014 as the investigation into “Bridgegate” widened to potentially include the governor.
Bridgegate, of course, refers to the political scandal in which Christie’s aides and political appointees colluded to create traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, New Jersey, in September 2013 as retribution against Fort Lee’s Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich, who did not endorse the governor’s re-election. NJ.com reported last year that the missing cell phone that Christie used during the lane closures and that he was believed to have lost was found in Wray’s possession. Christie’s aides’ defense attorneys had tried to access the phone, but a judge denied their request.
While two of Christie’s allies involved in the scandal were sentenced to prison time, Christie has not faced any charges related to it. But Wray continues to directly represent Christie, according to the Asbury Park Press, which reports that Wray’s law firm has collected $2.1 million from the governor since 2014.
Christie immediately praised Wray’s selection after Trump announced it.
“Christopher Wray is the gold standard, and the president deserves extraordinary credit of going through a deliberative process and picking not a politician but a law enforcement professional,” Christie said, according to NJ.com. “When I had to retain legal counsel during a very, very troubling, confusing, difficult time for me, I made one phone call, and that was to Chris Wray. I can’t give a better recommendation than that.”
In the event that the FBI investigates Christie’s involvement in Bridgegate, Wray could potentially be in a position as bureau director where he would have to prosecute Christie. That could create a conflict of interest.
It has been reported that a reference to you representing an executive in a Russian criminal investigation at King & Spalding was scrubbed from your company biography. Can you explain why, and if it was scrubbed intentionally? Can you expand upon the details of the work you did on this case and about the energy company president in question?
Wray’s King & Spalding biography from 2016 notes that he has represented an “energy company president in a criminal investigation by Russian authorities,” but his current biography on the law firm’s website does not include this.
Micheline Tang, a spokesperson for King & Spalding, told CNN that Wray personally changed this detail in his biography to “make the material more current.” She noted that the client was “adverse to the Russian Government,” and that Wray worked on this matter in 2006, while other attorneys at the firm worked on the case in 2006, 2007, and 2011. Tang declined to name the client, citing, according to CNN, “the Rules of Professional Responsibility regarding client confidentiality.”
As USA Today reports, King & Spalding also represents Rosneft and Gazprom, two of Russia’s largest state-controlled oil companies.
Cracking down on undocumented immigrants is a major agenda item for this administration and the DOJ, and by extension the FBI. There are some details in your background while you worked for the DOJ that raise ethical questions about your handling of detained immigrants. As FBI director, how will you try to ensure that federal officials preserve civil liberties while enforcing immigration laws?
Wray’s tenure at the DOJ coincided with the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the subsequent passage of the Patriot Act, which civil rights activists heavily criticized as violating due process and privacy laws. Notably, Wray directly oversaw counterterrorism programs during that time.
In 2003, the DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General published a review of the treatment of immigrants detained in connection with the investigation of the September 11 terrorist attacks, describing how Wray and a fellow DOJ official had directed the then-director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons to prevent immigrant detainees from accessing their lawyers as long as possible, though within the boundaries of the law.
In the wake of the attacks, the DOJ had detained hundreds of people the FBI suspected could have been linked to the attacks—largely Muslim immigrants. As the Inspector General would later find, most of these people had committed an immigration violation (such as overstaying their visas) but were not involved in terrorism. The Daily Beast reports that Wray’s directive resulted in dozens of people detained in maximum-security prisons for weeks without being able to communicate with their families or lawyers, which, as the Inspector General noted, was highly unusual for this type of immigration violation.
During Wray’s June 2003 confirmation hearing for the position of assistant attorney general in charge of the DOJ’s Criminal Division, Democratic senators grilled Wray on these allegations. Wray responded by saying that he only recalled talking to the Bureau of Prisons director about convicted defendants rather than immigrant detainees.
“Abuse of detainees is unacceptable, and this fact should always be emphasized in responding to future events,” Wray told former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) in response to questions about the Inspector General’s report.
Civil liberties attorneys who work for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Human Rights Watch, and the Center on National Security at Fordham University School of Law told the Daily Beast that these mass detentions raise serious constitutional questions, while CNN legal analyst Juliette Kayyem, who worked for the Department of Homeland Security under President Barack Obama, said that giving the detainees limited rights “in the post-9/11 aftermath does not strike me as outside of mainstream legal norm.”
Your counterterrorism experience directly after September 11 has been touted by your DOJ colleagues and by congressional members. But events from your past raise serious questions, specifically about the legality of military interrogation techniques used on suspects related to the attacks. Can you help us understand what you knew at the time and what your role was in that interrogation?
As the Miami Herald recently reported, Wray knew months before the public about the 2004 death of a detainee at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and was involved, “at the very least on the fringes,” in discussions surrounding the legality of military interrogation techniques involving suspects of the September 11 terrorist attacks. But the Miami Herald reports that Wray may have misled the Senate Judiciary Committee about this fact during a 2004 hearing on the efficacy and impact of laws aimed at protecting U.S. residents from terrorism, such as the Patriot Act. Wray told the committee that he learned about the suspected homicide of a detainee from news reports, omitting the fact that he was informed of the death by the Central Intelligence Agency.
“[O]bviously, I deplore any mistreatment,” he said, in response to a question from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) on the alleged abuse.
The Herald also reports on a document from 2004, obtained by the ACLU through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, that links Wray to insider information related to the alleged abuse of captives at Abu Ghraib:
A single page with his name and the date 5/6/04 is inexplicably written on the top of six bullet points of FBI concerns and awareness of “Abusive Interrogation Issues” at Guantánamo, Iraq and Afghanistan. That same day, Wray wrote a one-page letter to then Pentagon General Counsel William J. Haynes II entitled “Iraq detainees at Abu Ghraib prison.” What Wray told Haynes is not know[n] because the Department of Justice redacted it entirely when it provided the cover sheet but not the document to the ACLU.
Faiz Shakir, the ACLU’s national political director, said there are serious questions to be raised regarding Wray’s involvement in some of the Bush administration’s responses to the September 11 attacks, including torture programs and treatment of detainees.
“Given that Wray touts his deep involvement in the Bush administration’s response to the 9/11 attacks, which includes his connections to some of the most unlawful legal memos on Bush-era torture programs, the Senate should press Wray to come clean about his role in the programs,” Shakir said in an ACLU press statement. “In this important moment for our country, the American people deserve a commitment from any nominee for FBI director to the foundational principles of our Constitution, and that that commitment outweighs any loyalty to a political party or a single politician.”
How do you foresee instructing the FBI in defining and countering domestic terrorism?
As with immigration, the Trump administration has named fighting terrorism a major priority. But given the administration’s rhetoric, which appears to focus exclusively on “radical Islamic terrorism,” Wray’s confirmation hearing is a prime opportunity to find out how exactly his FBI would define domestic terrorism—and whether that definition would include acts of violence aimed at Muslims, immigrants, and abortion providers, just to name a few examples.
The reproductive rights community has reported a rise in violence and threats of violence against abortion providers all over the country in the last couple of years, despite the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act and other federal laws designed to quell such actions. Just this month, a reproductive health clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, reported incidents of vandalism—specifically, bricks thrown through the windows—on three separate occasions, according to the Associated Press. In late April, a Virginia abortion clinic reported a bomb threat, following an uptick of protests outside the clinic.
Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, which regularly tracks incidents of violence and harassment against reproductive health-care clinics and their staff, told Rewire in a phone interview that she would like a senator to ask the eventual FBI director nominee whether he believes violence aimed at reproductive health-care clinics falls under the federal statute definition of domestic terrorism and what he would do to direct his organization to combat clinic violence.
“Would [the FBI director] agree to track violence against reproductive-health clinics and their doctors, owners, health-care workers, and patients—or for that matter their vendors—to see what pattern and practices emerge that gets to the core of this violence or terrorism?” Smeal asked. “That’s how they track international terrorism. This is domestic terrorism. Would [he direct the FBI to] use skills to investigate what we believe is organized crime to drive not only clinics out of business, but to stop the provision of reproductive health care?”
Smeal noted that the FBI has investigated acts of violence against clinics through the FACE Act under both Republican and Democratic administrations, but she believes not enough resources have gone to combating the enduring and increasing problem of threats and violence against clinics.