FBI director confirmation hearing: Chris Wray vows ‘strict independence,’ pressed on Trump Jr. emails

Christopher Wray, President Trump’s pick for FBI director, vowed Wednesday to uphold “strict independence” at the bureau as his confirmation hearing became the latest stage for the Russia investigation drama.

Seeking to replace an FBI director fired by the president amid tensions over that investigation, Wray testified that he’d conduct his job "without regard to any partisan political influence."

“I believe to my core that there’s only one right way to do this job,” Wray said during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “And that is with strict independence. By the book. Playing it straight. Faithful to the Constitution."

Trump announced his selection of Wray to lead the FBI last month. The confirmation hearing, though, was overshadowed at times by the latest Russia-related revelations concerning Donald Trump Jr.

South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham asked Wray about emails released by Trump’s son pertaining to his meeting last summer with a Russian lawyer thought to have damaging information on Hillary Clinton.

Asked by Graham if Trump Jr. should have taken the meeting, Wray said he didn’t have enough information. “I’m not really in a position to speak to it.”

But when pressed by Graham, Wray said: “To the members of this committee, any threat or effort to interfere with our elections, from any nation state or any non-state actor, is the kind of the thing the FBI would want to know.”

The emails have emboldened the president’s critics who say they show clear evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Graham also asked Wray if he considers Russia a friend or enemy. “I think Russia is a foreign nation that we have to deal with very warily,” Wray replied.

Wray, 50, would inherit the nation’s top law enforcement agency at a particularly challenging time. Trump abruptly fired predecessor James Comey during its investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election and potential coordination with the Trump campaign.

The probe was later handed to special counsel Robert Mueller.

With pressure only mounting on Mueller to get to the bottom of the issue, Wray also declined to adopt Trump’s past characterization of the investigation as a "witch hunt," when asked during Wednesday’s hearing.

More broadly, he vowed to follow the facts as FBI director if confirmed.

“I would just say anybody who thinks that I would be pulling punches as the FBI director sure doesn’t know me very well," he said.

“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,” Wray said. “Period.”

With Wray announced as the nominee in a curt, early morning tweet by Trump, and without the pageantry of a Rose Garden ceremony, the hearing offered the first public, close-up look at Wray’s background.

“It’s a demanding job that requires a keen understanding of the law, sound management skills, calm under significant pressure, and a level head,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said at the beginning of the hearing. “From what I’ve seen so far from meetings with Mr. Wray and from looking at his record, he appears to possess these qualifications.”

Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the committee, seemed to take aim at the president by saying the FBI “is and must remain an independent law enforcement organization.”

“Free from political influence,” Feinstein said. “And this starts at the very top. The FBI director does not serve the president. He serves the Constitution, the law and the American people. As such, the director of the FBI must be a leader who has the integrity and strength that will enable him to withstand any attempts at political interference.”

Feinstein also asked Wray if he discussed Comey or his firing at the White House, Justice Department or FBI.

“Sen. Feinstein, I did not discuss those topics at all with anyone in the White House,” Wray said.

He said Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who approached him about the job, remarked to him that with the special counsel dealing with the issue “it made for a better landscape for me to consider taking on this position.”

Feinstein said she wanted to hear from Wray about his role in reviewing memos about the Bush-era enhanced interrogation program. She pointed out how he served as deputy attorney general’s most senior adviser when the office of legal counsel issued the so-called “torture memos” in 2002 and 2003.

“My view is that torture is wrong," Wray said. "It is unacceptable. It is illegal. And I think it’s ineffective.”

Wray said he would continue the policy of his predecessors that the FBI in “the use of any techniques of that sort.” He said that when he was assistant attorney general for the criminal division, he investigated and prosecuted a CIA contractor who went “overboard and abused a detainee that he was interrogating.”

During his opening statement, Grassley said he believes “a cloud of doubt hangs over the FBI’s objectivity.” He pointed to questions about FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, citing how McCabe’s wife ran as a Democrat for the Virginia state Senate and accepted almost a million dollars from Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe’s “political machine.”

“Gov. McAuliffe is a longtime friend and fundraiser for the Clintons and the Democratic Party,” Grassley said. “Deputy Director Andrew McCabe met in person with Gov. McAuliffe about his wife’s political plans.”

Wednesday’s hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee delved into Wray’s lengthy legal career that included a stint as a top Justice Department official in the Bush administration and white collar work at an international law firm with several major corporations and banks as clients.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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