Attorney Christopher Wray is on deck to become the next director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, if the president ever gets around to nominating him.
President Donald Trump tweeted Wray was his pick on June 7, more than two weeks ago. A Senate Judiciary Committee spokesperson confirmed to The Daily Beast that the White House has not yet referred him to the Senate for confirmation, meaning he hasn’t been formally nominated.
It’s a delay that’s unusual, though not completely unheard-of. Experts on nominations said he probably was named prematurely because the White House was in a hurry to announce the FBI director–even though being named without being fully vetted puts the would-be director in an uncomfortable position.
“You usually don’t want to do it that way,” said Richard Painter, the ethics czar for George W. Bush’s White House. “If you make the announcement early, you take a risk.”
Michael Short, a spokesperson for the White House, defended the timing.
“Sorry was there a date that we said he’d be cleared by?” he emailed. “Otherwise I don’t know how you can say there is a ‘delay.’ The clearance process is very rigorous for a high-level position such as this. It takes as long as it takes.”
Bob Mueller was confirmed as FBI director one month after George W. Bush nominated him for the post. And the Senate confirmed Comey five weeks after Obama nominated him.
In fairness, the process for Wray was a bit backwards from the get-go.
Trump tweeted on June 7––the day before fired FBI director James Comey’s blockbuster Senate testimony––that he planned to nominate Wray for the job. And a host of media outlets, including Breitbart, Business Insider, and Al Jazeera, ran headlines saying the president had nominated him. But he hadn’t. A candidate hasn’t been nominated until the White House sends his or her paperwork to the Senate for confirmation. And it’s an important distinction, since we can’t be sure the White House has done all their homework on a would-be cabinet secretary, federal judge, or FBI director until they refer that person to the Senate.
Presidents normally like to keep their nominees under wraps until they have fully vetted them in case anything turns up in the FBI background check that precludes them from joining the administration. And by waiting to announce their nominees until they’re vetted, presidents give their opponents less time to dig up dirt on the people they pick. So that was the norm during the Bush and Obama administrations, according to people familiar with how those presidents handled confirmations.
But in the Trump era, things are different.
Matt Miller, a spokesperson for the Justice Department when Eric Holder was attorney general, said the delay in formally nominating Wray is likely because investigators haven’t finished running his background check and scrutinizing his financial disclosures––as Short indicated in his email.
“Usually that means you haven’t fully vetted the person and finished going through all the background checks you need to do,” Miller told The Daily Beast. “And given the way this White House works, it wouldn’t surprise anyone if they hadn’t fully vetted him by the time they made the announcement.”
In Wray’s case, a former White House lawyer pointed out that there were no good options. It took the White House a month after Comey’s firing to name Wray, even though Trump could have kept Comey in that role until finding his replacement. On May 13, four days after firing Comey, Trump told reporters on Air Force One that he might make a “fast decision” about his FBI director. He didn’t. And on May 18, the president said he was “very close” to naming Comey’s replacement. He wasn’t.
One retired FBI agent told The Daily Beast that the delay between firing Comey and naming Wray was “a joke” and “an insult to every FBI agent, current and former.”
And now, the fact that Wray hasn’t been formally nominated indicates that announcement was itself premature. There are reports that the president was in such a rush to name someone to take Comey’s spot that he didn’t give Congress or his staff a heads-up about it.
The fact that Trump announced Wray as his pick the day before Comey’s testimony drew immediate criticism, as it appeared he was trying to use the FBI announcement for political benefit. That was particularly troubling to federal law enforcement, who take pride in keeping their work separate from politics.
And now, the fact that Trump still hasn’t nominated Wray just underscores concerns that he’s already using the FBI for political ends.
“He talks, Trump does, about the premiere law enforcement agency in the world and yet -- I don’t know, I just don’t understand how he operates,” said a retired FBI agent.
“To me, it’s another example of the guy’s total lack of respect and understanding for the government operates,” he added.
Painter, who also also on the board of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the president’s premature announcement of Wray came so early because of the blowback he faced for firing Comey.
“The whole thing is tarnished,” he said.