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FBI Director Nominee Christopher Wray Questioned By Senate Judiciary


One of President Trump's most important nominees was pressed today about his background. Christopher Wray went before the Senate judiciary committee and pledged he would be an independent leader at the FBI. He also promised to uphold the traditions of the Justice Department. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Christopher Wray walked into the Senate judiciary committee hearing with one key challenge - demonstrate his commitment to nonpartisan law enforcement without beating up the president who selected him.


CHRISTOPHER WRAY: My loyalty is to the Constitution and to the rule of law. Those have been my guideposts throughout my career, and I will continue to adhere to them no matter the tests.

JOHNSON: Those tests are not hypothetical. They're real. The FBI has operated without a leader for two months now ever since President Trump fired Director James Comey, the man running the investigation into Russian interference in last year's election. Trump said he dismissed Comey to ease pressure on the White House over Russia, but that move backfired. The Russia investigation is still going on with special counsel Robert Mueller at the helm. Trump and other White House figures say the probe is a waste of time. His nominee to run the FBI, Chris Wray, disagrees.


WRAY: I do not consider Director Mueller to be on a witch hunt.

JOHNSON: Another point of disagreement - the president says he's not sure Russians hacked the email accounts of prominent Democrats last year or that Russia acted alone. But Wray says he has no reason to doubt the conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia indeed was the culprit, a line of questioning taken up by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham.


LINDSEY GRAHAM: Is Russia our friend or our enemy?

WRAY: Senator, I think Russia is a foreign nation that we have to deal with very warily.

GRAHAM: You think they're an adversary of the United States.

WRAY: In some situations, yes.

JOHNSON: Democrats on the committee expressed their concern about the man in the Oval Office. Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy...


PATRICK LEAHY: If the president asked you to do something unlawful or unethical, what do you say?

WRAY: First I would try to talk him out of it. And if that failed, I would resign.

JOHNSON: Wray says his understated demeanor may lead people to underestimate him. But he says when it comes to the rule of law, his spine is plenty stiff.


WRAY: And there isn't a person on this planet whose lobbying or influence could convince me to just drop or abandon a properly predicated and meritorious investigation.

JOHNSON: In an odd sign of the times, lawmakers repeatedly asked Wray if he would be ready to quit before the FBI director's 10-year term ends, promises they wanted to hear during the equivalent of his job interview in the Senate. In fact Wray says he offered to resign in 2004 in a standoff over surveillance during the George W. Bush administration. In those years, Wray served in top roles at the Justice Department, struggling to prosecute corrupt bankers and prevent terrorist attacks. Democrat Dianne Feinstein wanted to know what role Wray played in approving abusive interrogation techniques back then.


WRAY: My view is that torture is wrong. It's unacceptable. It's illegal. And I think it's ineffective.

JOHNSON: Wray says he doesn't remember blessing waterboarding or other harsh tactics, and he says his criminal division prosecuted a CIA contractor in connection with the death of a detainee in Afghanistan. After nearly five hours of back and forth, senators expressed confidence Wray would get confirmed perhaps before Congress takes its August recess. Though how long he'll stay in the job seemed to be an open question. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.