After Donald Trump’s abrupt firing of the FBI director, James Comey, last month, former agents said the bureau’s rank-and-file wanted one thing: a fiercely independent replacement who would restore the bureau’s reputation for staying apolitical.
Christopher Wray, a criminal defense attorney and former senior justice department official, may not have been their first choice. But Trump’s pick for FBIdirector seems qualified and “fairly non-controversial”, according to former agents.
“He has the credentials that bode well,” said Jeffrey Ringel, a 21-year veteran of the FBI who now heads a private security consultancy.
Wray, 50, is likely to face Democratic questions over his independence, given his work as an attorney to Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor who chaired Trump’s transition team, and the curious fact that Wray possesses Christie’s old cellphone.
The phone’s location was a mystery during the trial of former Christie allies charged over the 2013 “Bridgegate” scandal. They argued unsuccessfully that the phone should be turned over to help them hunt for text messages between Christie and his chief of staff, which were erased from the chief of staff’s own phone. Christie’s office eventually confirmed that the device was being held by Wray.
But former FBI agents played down the significance of Wray’s link to a Trump associate. “If he was trying to keep evidence out of court, that’s what a defense attorney does,” said Louis J Caprino, who served as an FBI agent for 29 years and now runs a public safety program at Vincennes University in Indiana.
Ringel agreed that Wray’s history of defending Christie was not “really a consideration” as “lawyers have a duty to protect their client as best they can”.
Further questions about Wray’s suitability for the FBI job may arise because a partner at the law firm he is poised to depart, King & Spalding, currently serves as an ethics counsel to the trust that holds Trump’s business assets.
An Obama rule renewed by Trump in January bars presidential appointees for two years from working on any matters related to his or her former employer or clients. The FBI is reviewing Trump’s business interests as part of its investigations into ties between his presidential campaign and Russia.
But Norman Eisen, a former ethics counsel to Barack Obama, said the rule should not present a problem to Wray “if Wray did not do work on the Trump matter” himself while at his law firm.
Democratic senators may also be keen to ask Wray about the “energy company president” defended by Wray “in a criminal investigation by Russian authorities” who is listed among his past clients on Wray’s biography at King & Spalding, which has been taken down from the company’s website.
FBI agents were outraged by the manner of Trump’s dismissal of Comey, which many viewed as disrespectful. Comey found out that the president had fired him from news reports as he was giving a speech to agents in Los Angeles. The following day, Trump reportedly called Comey a “nut job” in a conversation with Russian officials in the Oval Office.
Even former FBI agents who disapproved of Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation considered the way Trump fired Comey “disgraceful” and a slap in the face to the bureau. Whatever their personal opinions of Comey, former agents said, he had done honorable public service.
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