Donald Trump’s nominee for FBI director hasn’t even gotten through the first step of his confirmation process, and the president has already tried to use him.
You can be forgiven for not noticing: It happened on June 7, the morning before James Comey was set to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Trump surely knew how much anticipation had been building for Comey’s testimony, and he couldn’t have been happy about it. (When he said back in January that Comey had “become more famous than me,” he didn’t mean it in a nice way.) And so, Trump got on Twitter and broke a little news:
Despite all the normal caveats about how Trump may not be sophisticated enough to deploy tweets as a distraction mechanism, it’s hard to believe the timing here was an accident. More likely, Trump’s naming of Christopher Wray was meant to coincide with the avalanche of coverage the president knew was coming as soon as Comey was sworn in the next day. Like a lovelorn high school senior making a point of talking to his new girlfriend in front of an ex who’d dumped him, Trump looked to be projecting strength and steadiness. Have your little hearing, he seemed to be saying. I’ll just be over here with my new FBI director.
The move didn’t work. Wray, a total unknown outside the federal law enforcement community, was the furthest thing from a splashy “statement” pick. Instead of finding someone who might chart a defiant new course at the FBI—someone like Joe Lieberman, the former senator, who was reportedly under consideration before Wray got the nod—he’d settled on a former federal prosecutor who identified strongly with the institutional culture of the Justice Department and the FBI. In other words, he’d picked another James Comey.
Before Trump fired Comey, the president told his aides there was “something wrong with” the FBI director. It was an inscrutable comment, but it’s always seemed to me that the “something” Trump picked up on—Comey’s awkward reticence in the face of improper advances, his total refusal to play ball on Michael Flynn—was exactly the same “something” the FBI’s rank-and-file investigators had liked and respected about their boss. Given Wray’s long history at DOJ—he put in five years as an assistant U.S. attorney in Georgia working with Sally Yates, then five more in the halls of Main Justice working with Comey and Robert Mueller—I would bet that Wray has that something, too.
At Wray’s confirmation hearing on Wednesday morning, expect to hear senators on the Judiciary Committee ask the 50-year-old attorney what he’ll do if the president tries to pressure and manipulate him in the same way he pressured and manipulated his predecessor. Expect Wray to respond by assuring them that he’ll strive to be independent, apolitical, and fair. And while he’ll probably restrain himself from betraying any disapproval or distrust toward the man he’ll be working for, he won’t have to. Wray obviously knows who Trump is. He knows this is a president who fired the last guy for refusing to pledge his loyalty and for resisting pressure to drop an inconvenient investigation into one of Trump’s friends. In that context, every one of Wray’s anodyne pronouncements about pursuing justice without fear or favor and insulating the FBI from political influence will ring out with irony and tension. What would normally be generic declarations of good faith and seriousness will serve instead as a reminder of the extraordinary circumstances that brought Wray to this confirmation hearing in the first place.
Since that morning in June when Trump revealed Wray’s nomination, friends of the former prosecutor have described him to journalists as a press-shy, hard-working, even-keeled man of integrity. These are the same testimonials we’ve heard about every Justice Department lawyer who’s entered the spotlight. Yates, Mueller, Rod Rosenstein, Rachel Brand—all of them professionals and straight shooters who respect the institution of the DOJ and can be counted on to uphold its values. Wray follows in this same tradition: His years in private practice notwithstanding, he is the consummate DOJ man, and he has been praised accordingly by all the other consummate DOJ men and women who’ve worked alongside him.
“He’s very good at convincing people of a wiser course, but he’s highly principled, and if he can’t stop the train, he’ll find a way to blow the whistle and get off,” one former colleague said.
“Chris Wray is a man of integrity with a deep commitment to the rule of law,” said another.
“His willingness to put in a tremendous amount of effort toward a team goal really personifies Chris,” said a third.
While they may make for extremely boring copy, these deadening compliments speak to something real about the DOJ: The people who work there are trained to take their honor very seriously. In this regard, they are from a different planet than Donald Trump. Where he is vindictive and emotional, they take pride in being detached and deliberative. Where he is transactional and chummy, they are taught to avoid even the appearance of favoritism or quid pro quo. Where he is an enthusiastically tribal partisan, they take pains to assure anyone who’ll listen that their private political inclinations have no bearing on their work.
Trump could have, in theory, picked a wild and crazy outsider to be his new FBI director. Why he ended up picking Wray instead is not publicly known, but I suspect Trump and his people realized they needed someone who the FBI’s career prosecutors would trust and take seriously.
So long as someone like that is in charge of the FBI, it’s safe to say Trump will never get what he wants out of the agency. The FBI’s very purpose is at odds with everything he stands for as president, and its culture and values are strong enough to resist his blunt-force efforts to mold the place in his image.
Wray will be aware of this dynamic as he faces the Senate Judiciary Committee. And though he will do his diplomatic best to conceal it, he will answer all the expected questions with an eye toward signaling—both to his future staff and all the worried civilians watching at home—that his top responsibility as FBI director will not be making peace between the FBI and Donald Trump. It will be protecting the bureau from a president who wants to use it for his own ends.