When President Donald Trump named his pick for FBI director Wednesday, some former FBI agents were quick to suggest Trump was politicizing the role.
The president announced (over Twitter, naturally), that he will nominate Christopher Wray to head the bureau. The fact that Trump made this announcement shortly before former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony was due hasn’t been lost on the federal law enforcement community.
The timing will fuel concerns that the president is still trying to use law enforcement for political purposes—which is anathema in the law enforcement world.
Trump told NBC News that he fired Comey because he didn’t like the fact that Comey was investigating potential connections between his campaign and the Russian government. Comey is expected to testify that Trump tried to get him to roll back investigations of his associates.
Retired FBI Deputy Director Ron Hosko criticized the president’s decision to announce the nomination right before Comey’s testimony.
“Unfortunately, the timing of this nomination—if this is what you call it, nomination by tweet—the timing of it looks as political as anything else today, because this was obviously timed to take a little bit of light and heat out of tomorrow’s show,” Hosko told The Daily Beast. “The first step in this president’s dealing with what could be the next FBI director is politics on display, day one, moment one.”
A retired FBI agent concurred.
“He’s trying to deflect,” the retired agent said. “Given the fact that you fired Comey, you should have a replacement named within a week or so. This has gone on for what, a month?”
“It’s a joke,” he added. “It’s an insult to every FBI agent, current and former.”
Wray headed the Criminal Division of the Justice Department from 2003 to 2005, where he worked on counterterror cases.
Half a dozen retired FBI agents who spoke with The Daily Beast said they were, at best, only marginally familiar with Wray’s law enforcement work, which indicates he will be an unknown quantity to the bureau's rank and file.
This soon after Comey’s firing, the “main priority” for rank-and-file special agents and analysts at the bureau will be to see if Wray has “absolute, unqualified independence from any political influence,” said Marc Ruskin, who retired from the FBI in 2012 after a 20-year career undercover.
Since leaving the Justice Department in 2005, Wray has worked at King & Spalding, a law firm with offices around the world. Wray’s bio at the firm’s site indicates he’s won the most accolades for his work on white collar crime cases, defending financial institutions and pharmaceutical companies facing scrutiny from the Justice Department. He has significant experience representing companies facing allegations that they bribed foreign government officials under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
Wray is best known for representing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie during the Bridgegate scandal. Christie is a loyal Trump ally. Christie, however, prosecuted the father of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, who reportedly kept Christie out of the administration.
Wray has shown a willingness to buck his superiors. According to national-security reporter Barton Gellman’s book “Angler,” Wray, while an assistant attorney general, supported a mini-rebellion within the top echelons of the Justice Department and FBI in 2004. Several senior officials, including Mueller and Comey, were unsettled by the scope of the Bush administration’s mass warrantless collection of Americans’ email metadata.
Wray apparently was unfamiliar with the highly secretive program, but got wind of the escalating clash. He stopped Comey in a hallway, according to Gellman’s book, and told the then-acting attorney general: “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.”
Additionally, Wray has ties to Mueller and his inquiry. A colleague from the Enron task force, Andrew Weissman, recently signed on with Mueller’s prosecutorial team. Wray oversaw that task force during his time at the Justice Department.
Wray generated controversy during his time at the Justice Department for briefing then-Attorney General John Ashcroft on FBI interviews with Karl Rove, as independent journalist Marcy Wheeler noted. Ashcroft later recused himself from the investigation.
Wheeler noted that Wray was also “on the border of a lot of torture decisions in 2004,” and that the ACLU’s database of communications about torture include fully redacted emails that Wray sent.
For the most part, though, Wray will be an unknown quantity for most current law enforcement officials. Tom Fuentes, a retired FBI official who previously headed the bureau’s Office of International Operations, said Wray’s time at the Justice Department is an important asset.
“I think that they will be pleased about the fact that he has that background,” Fuentes said. “But on the other hand, from the agents’ perspective, the bureau is very complex––40,000 people all over the world running intel cases and criminal cases and a variety of other special types of inquiries for the government. And they’ll have to wait and see if he’s going to be up to that level of complexity.”
To earn trust within the Bureau, Wray must show support for special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation into connections between the Kremlin and Trump associates, said Ruskin, who this week published a memoir, “The Pretender: My Life Undercover for the FBI.”
Agents will be combing through Wray’s history and early behavior, if confirmed, to see if he’s “free of any hint, suggestion or bent that he’s made any decision formulated by anything other than the evidence and the facts presented to him, or [if] he’s subject to the influence of politicians or anyone else inappropriate,” Ruskin told The Daily Beast.
And Ali Soufan, a retired counterterrorism special agent, said the Bureau needed to see Wray demonstrate “independence, loyalty to the mission and, above all, integrity.”