WASHINGTON — Prospective FBI chief Christopher Wray pledged on Wednesday to fully support the ongoing investigation of Russian contacts with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, if confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
He vowed to act against any attempt to block the investigation, which is being led by former FBI director Robert Mueller. Mueller was named by the Justice Department as special counsel in the case.
“I would consider an effort to tamper with director Mueller’s investigation to be unacceptable and inappropriate and would need to be dealt with very sternly and appropriately indeed,” Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Wray was named by Trump on June 7 to succeed James Comey, whom the president sacked on May 9.
Comey had been leading the FBI investigation of Russian hacking and other election meddling — which had expanded to Russian contacts with participants in the Trump campaign — when he was fired. The probe has since been handed to Mueller, Comey’s predecessor at the FBI.
Wray, 50, a partner at the King & Spalding law firm, was assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s criminal division in 2003-05.
“I’m very committed to supporting director Mueller in the special counsel investigation in whatever way is appropriate for me to do that,” he said.
Wray, a Yale Law School graduate and former federal prosecutor, was associate deputy attorney general from 2001-03.
He promised “strict independence” as FBI chief “without fear, without favouritism and, certainly, without regard to any partisan political influence.”
Under questioning from senators, both opposition Democrats and Trump’s own conservative Republicans, Wray took stances on a series of issues that contradicted the president, who last month called him a “model of integrity” who is “impeccably qualified” to lead the FBI.
Repeatedly denying collusion between his campaign and Russian officials, Trump has derided the investigation as a “witch hunt.”
South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican who has often been critical of Trump, pushed Wray, who first tried to avoid commenting, on Trump’s characterization.
“I do not consider Director Mueller to be on a witch hunt,” Wray eventually said.
He described Mueller as “the consummate straight shooter … and I would be pleased to do what I can to support him in his mission.”
FBI directors serve a 10-year term but can be fired by the president.
Comey told Congress after his ouster that Trump had sought a pledge of personal loyalty. In response to questions from senators on the Judiciary Committee, Wray said he would never consent to any political loyalty oath.
“My loyalty is to the constitution, to the rule of law and to the mission of the FBI,” he said, “and no one asked me for any kind of loyalty oath at any point during this process, and I sure as heck didn’t offer one.”
Wray said that if a president asked him as FBI director to do anything unlawful or unethical, “First I would try to talk him out of it, and if that failed, I would resign.”
During the presidential campaign, Trump directly advocated torture to interrogate suspected terrorists but as president has accepted opposition to such methods by cabinet members including Defence Secretary James Mattis.
Wray said on Wednesday that he considered water-boarding torture.
“My view is that torture is wrong, it’s unacceptable, it’s illegal and I think it’s ineffective,” he said.