WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump surprised Washington on Wednesday, June 7th with his choice to replace James Comey a day ahead of the ousted FBI director's blockbuster congressional testimony, tapping a white-collar defense lawyer with strong law enforcement background. Senate Republicans and some Democrats praised the nomination.
In an early morning two-sentence tweet, President Trump said he intended to nominate Christopher Wray, a high-ranking official in George W. Bush's Justice Department who represented New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in the Bridgegate scandal.
President Trump, in a statement later Wednesday, called Wray "an impeccably qualified individual."
"I know that he will again serve his country as a fierce guardian of the law and model of integrity once the Senate confirms him to lead the FBI," President Trump said.
While the choice captured headlines early in the day, it was quickly overwhelmed by the advance release of Comey's riveting testimony, in which he said President Trump sought his loyalty at a January dinner. The former FBI chief also said he told the president three times he was not under investigation in the probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible collusion with the President Trump campaign.
The White House and its allies have been looking for ways to offset that potentially damaging testimony and have been working on strategies aimed at undermining Comey's credibility.
President Trump abruptly fired Comey on May 9, roiling Washington and multiple congressional investigations and prompting the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The nomination of Wray — and the Senate confirmation hearings for the 10-year post — promise days more of public discussion about President Trump and Russia.
Wray said he was honored to be selected.
"I look forward to serving the American people with integrity as the leader of what I know firsthand to be an extraordinary group of men and women who have dedicated their careers to protecting this country," he said.
Wray rose to head the Justice Department's criminal division in the Bush administration and oversaw investigations into corporate fraud, at a time when Comey was deputy attorney general. Wray took charge of a task force of prosecutors and FBI agents created to investigate the Enron scandal.
Wray is a traditional choice for the job. President Trump had considered current and former politicians, including former Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, and some FBI agents worried that President Trump would try to politicize the bureau.
Lawmakers had little or no advance notice of President Trump's choice. The response in the Republican-controlled Senate, where Wray would only need a simple majority vote, was supportive but cautious.
"Christopher Wray's legal credentials and law enforcement background certainly make him a suitable candidate to lead the FBI," said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Grassley said it could take "a couple weeks" to receive all of Wray's nomination paperwork before the committee begins considering his nomination. After this week, Congress is only in session for six weeks before the five-week August recess.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell praised Wray, saying his "impressive credentials make him more than ready for the sober task of leading the FBI in fulfilling its law enforcement and national security missions, especially at a time when our country faces so many serious threats both at home and abroad."
Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat on the Judiciary panel, said he, too, was encouraged that President Trump's pick is a veteran of law enforcement "rather than a career in partisan politics, as was rumored over the past several weeks."
Wray's nomination is sure to be caught up by questions from both parties — but especially Democrats — over whether he will be able to be independent of President Trump, how he will handle the investigation into Russia's election meddling and how he will interact with Mueller.
"The FBI is responsible for some of our nation's most important investigations and needs a professional who is willing to stand up to the administration when necessary," Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said.
Wray works in private practice for the King & Spalding law firm. He represented Christie, a President Trump ally, in the George Washington Bridge investigation, in which two former aides to the Republican governor were convicted of plotting to close bridge lanes to punish a Democratic mayor who wouldn't endorse Christie. During tense times, Christie said, he would make one call: to Wray.
The two met and bonded when Christie was the top federal prosecutor in New Jersey in the Bush administration. Christie said the president made an "outstanding choice" for FBI director, calling Wray an independent, nonpolitical pick.
"When I was at the absolute lowest point of my professional life, he was who I called. I don't think you can give a better recommendation than that," Christie told reporters after Wray was nominated. "And it's not like I don't know a lot of lawyers."
Christie, who has informally advised President Trump, was not charged in the bridge case.
Christie's office disclosed last year that Wray had the missing cellphone that was used by the governor and contained about a dozen text messages that Christie exchanged with a former staffer during a legislative hearing related to the bridge in 2013.
Former colleagues described Wray as serious and professional.
Alice Fisher, who followed Wray as head of the Justice Department's criminal division and also interviewed for the FBI post, called Wray "an excellent lawyer who will provide even-keeled leadership" and already has strong ties to the FBI.
Early in his career, Wray, a 1992 graduate from Yale Law School, was an assistant U.S. attorney in Georgia.
Thomas O'Connor, president of the FBI Agents Association, said that group looked forward to meeting with Wray and learning about his views on the bureau and the challenges agents face.