President Donald Trump’s pick to run the FBI pledged his independence Wednesday in leading the agency, telling a Senate panel at his confirmation hearing he would not be “pulling punches” in the position.
“Anybody who thinks I would be pulling punches as the FBI director sure doesn’t know me well,” Chris Wray told the Senate judiciary committee in response to a question from committee Chairman Chuck Grassley.
He also told Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont that no one in the administration asked him for a “loyalty pledge,” as former FBI Director James Comey alleged Trump asked for earlier this year.
“And I as sure as heck didn’t offer one,” Wray said.
Wray is running into new questions about Russia’s interference in the US elections as a political storm has swept up around Trump’s eldest son. Leahy also asked Wray how he’d respond if the President asked him to do something unethical or unlawful.
“First, I would try to talk him out of it, and if that failed, I would resign,” Wray said.
Trump’s selection of Wray, a former federal prosecutor who enjoys broad bipartisan support, has been viewed as a rare bright spot amid the calamity spurred by the President’s firing of Comey in May.
But Wray is appearing in front of one of the at least four congressional committees looking into Russian interference in the election, just as Trump Jr.’s meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya has reignited questions about the Trump campaign’s involvement. A Justice Department-appointed special counsel is also investigating Russian interference in last year’s election.
Wray in his opening statement vowed to be “impartial in the pursuit of justice” if confirmed.
“If I am given the honor of leading this agency, I will never allow the FBI’s work to be driven by anything other than the facts, the law, and the impartial pursuit of justice. Period. Full stop. My loyalty is to the Constitution and the rule of law. They have been my guideposts throughout my career, and I will continue to adhere to them no matter the test,” Wray said.
Grassley played up Wray’s bipartisan bona fides in his opening statement — an implicit nod to concerns lodged by critics in the wake of Comey’s firing.
“It’s vitally important for the FBI director to be independent. In reviewing his record. I’ve seen Mr. Wray’s commitment to independence. He’s prosecuted ‘little guys’ and ‘big guys,’ including a major league baseball player, gun-traffickers, and RICO violators. He’s prosecuted folks on both sides of the political spectrum, including folks working on a Republican campaign,” Grassley said.
In a twist, Grassley later filed through a series of complaints against the acting FBI director, Andrew McCabe, arguing that he was too partisan and too close to the Clintons.
The top Democrat on the committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, issued a statement Tuesday that didn’t mention Wray’s confirmation but did highlight how she sees the Trump Jr. emails.
“There are still many questions that must be answered,” Feinstein said in the statement. “That’s why I’ve urged Chairman Grassley to move quickly—this issue is squarely within the jurisdiction of the Judiciary Committee and I believe we need to have Donald Trump, Jr., and other individuals come before the committee, in open session, as soon as possible.”
Last summer, Trump Jr. agreed to meet with Veselnitskaya, whom he believed to be a “Russian government attorney” after receiving an email offering him “very high level and sensitive information” that would “incriminate” Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, according to emails the younger Trump publicly released on Tuesday.
Trump Jr.’s attorney has dismissed the revelations as “much ado about nothing” and Trump Jr. said in a statement Tuesday morning that he thought the information being offered was “Political Opposition Research.”
“I first wanted to just have a phone call but when that didn’t work out, they said the woman would be in New York and asked if I would meet. I decided to take the meeting. The woman, as she has said publicly, was not a government official,” Trump Jr. said in a statement he tweeted along with the emails. “And, as we have said, she had no information to provide and wanted to talk about adoption policy and the Magnitsky Act.”
White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders read a statement from the President defending his son during an off-camera briefing with reporters Tuesday.
“My son is a high-quality person and I applaud his transparency,” Sanders said, reading a statement from Trump.
Wray came up as a top official in the Justice Department under George W. Bush, before going into private practice. As a private lawyer, he represented New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie when he was interviewed by the FBI as part of the Bridgegate scandal.
Last month, the Senate judiciary committee released last month a comprehensive, 68-page questionnaire that Wray had filled out.
The Office of Government Ethics released a financial disclosure earlier this week from Wray that shows he received a partnership share from his Atlanta law firm of $9.2 million over the current and previous calendar year.
By Tom LoBianco and David Shortell. CNN’s Jeremy Diamond contributed to this report.