The 6 toughest questions for the next FBI director – Politico

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Christopher Wray is pictured. | AP Photo

One part of Christopher Wray’s record Democrats are sure to dissect: the four years he served at the Justice Department under President George W. Bush, primarily after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. | AP Photo

Christopher Wray’s confirmation hearing takes place as the Trump-Russia scandal deepens.

Christopher Wray faces a stark question from skeptics as he prepares to take on one of the toughest jobs in the Trump administration: Where does your loyalty lie?

The cloud of fired FBI Director James Comey will loom large over Wray’s confirmation hearing to replace him on Wednesday, as will the perpetual onslaught of revelations involving the federal probe into potential collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.

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“After Comey was fired, as the president said, to stop the Russia investigation, there are some fundamental questions that need to be asked about any director of the FBI,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said in an interview Tuesday. “Where is your commitment? Is your commitment to the law, or to the president who chose you?”

Wray, a lawyer and former Department of Justice official, can expect to be peppered with questions about whether he can be sufficiently independent from President Donald Trump and how he will handle the sensitive investigation that is dogging the Republican administration and distracting GOP-led Washington from accomplishing its ambitious policy agenda.

Here are six key questions Wray is likely to face during his hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday:

Does your loyalty lie with the president who nominated you?

Wray confronts the same high-wire balancing act that other Trump picks, including Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, faced during their hearings: demonstrating his independence from Trump without alienating him.

But for Wray, that question is even more dicey considering the circumstances in which Comey was fired. The former FBI director testified Trump told him during a private dinner that “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty” — and Wray is likely to be pressed on whether he, too, faced a similar loyalty oath.

“To be very blunt, he’s appointed by an administration that is under investigation for obstruction of justice,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), another member of the Judiciary Committee who will grill Wray on Wednesday. “So why is that? Why was he appointed? What has been said to him? And what has he said to others in the course of the interviews that were conducted leading to his nomination?”

Those are answers that will be closely watched not only by Democrats on the committee, but also Republicans. Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina said Wray’s ability to show some daylight from the Trump administration will be “critically important.”

“The FBI is one of the most respected law enforcement organizations in history,” said Tillis, a GOP member of the committee. “And a part of that is, they have — with few exceptions — proven to be highly independent. I want that.”

Did Comey handle the Clinton email probe appropriately?

Comey may be long gone, but expect him to be a consistent presence at his successor’s confirmation hearing.

After all, Trump initially premised his decision to fire the FBI chief because of his very public handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server. It may have been an unusual justification considering the “lock her up” chants that became synonymous with the Republican’s 2016 campaign mega-rallies — but it also broached a sensitive topic inside the bureau and across the Justice Department.

Comey himself testified in May, before he was fired, that he was “mildly nauseous” over the notion he played such a significant role in the election’s outcome. The FBI director had announced in July 2016 that the Clinton case should be closed without prosecution. Then he made a new statement reopening it in October during the closing days of the race because of new messages that had emerged during the course of a separate probe involving sexually explicit materials on the computer of disgraced former Rep. Anthony Weiner, who was married at the time to senior Clinton campaign aide Huma Abedin.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein cited Comey’s “serious mistakes” on the Clinton case in his memo to Trump in May explaining how the FBI’s “reputation and credibility have suffered substantial damage” — a document the president used in justifying the firing and for dampening morale in the bureau, though Trump later cited Comey’s work on the Russia probe as a key reason.

Key senators who have met privately with Wray say they expect the nominee to raise the issue.

“He’ll talk to how basically the way that Director Comey handled this was completely unconventional and why it’s important to restore regular respect for the Department of Justice’s role, vis-à-vis the FBI,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, who met with Wray on Monday. “I think it’ll be an important point.”

Some senior FBI officials struggled with how much to blame Comey, and many pushed back against the idea he was to blame for the bureau’s morale.

A former senior DOJ official during the administration of President Barack Obama predicted that both Democrats and Republicans will be looking to Wray to explain how closely he intends to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps, asking: “Are you going to be a celebrity FBI director like people thought Comey was?”

Will you give special counsel Robert Mueller sufficient space to conduct his probe?
Mueller, a former FBI director, is now the point person for all Justice Department work involving Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, and it means that the major questions involving this active and politically sensitive criminal investigation are best handled by Mueller.

The FBI itself does retain a strong role in the Mueller case — its cyber and counterespionage agents are among those detailed to the Mueller effort. And the acting FBI chief told a House appropriations subcommittee last month that “a great number of folks” were working with Mueller and “will do everything necessary to deliver the resources and meet the needs that he has to do that work.”

“For me, the major point is, will a special prosecutor be supported in doing his job and protected from interference?” Blumenthal said. “I may ask, you know, whether he’d quit if Mueller was fired.”

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