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FBI director confirmation hearing: Christopher Wray has his work cut out for him

Persuading the Senate he’ll be independent of Trump won’t be easy; if he’s confirmed, persuading his own agents could be harder.

Assistant U.S. Attorney General Christopher Wray announces indictment Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a confirmation hearing Wednesday to consider Christopher Wray to replace James Comey as head of the FBI.

Wray’s work is cut out for him: he has to convince the Senate that he’ll be independent of Donald Trump, who nominated him last month.

If confirmed, he’ll have the even harder task of persuading his own agency of his independence. The president hasn’t made it easy for him.

Trump’s sudden firing of Comey in May has cascaded into a scandal that threatens to engulf his presidency.

While the White House claimed at the time that Comey was fired over his treatment of a 2016 investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state, Trump himself openly boasted to media outlets (and, reportedly, to Russian officials) that Comey was fired at least in part for continuing to pursue a federal investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

Comey himself alleged (in memos written to other FBI officials at the time, and to the Senate Intelligence Committee in June) that President Trump asked him on one occasion to “see your way” to letting former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn off the hook after Flynn was fired for inappropriate contact with Russian and other foreign officials. Furthermore, Comey claims, President Trump asked him explicitly for his loyalty — implying that loyalty was a condition of letting Comey keep his job.

The Russia investigation has been handed off to a special counsel, former FBI Director Robert Mueller. And while there are concurrent House and Senate investigations, Republicans in Congress have generally been agnostic toward the scandal — expressing concern about the firing of Comey, for example, but often just as concerned about the president’s critics.

But Wray’s job is arguably even harder than any investigator’s: He has to take over a bureau that doesn’t trust the president who appointed him.

Wray is a former Justice Department official. He ran the criminal division of the Department of Justice under George W. Bush, from 2003 to 2005. That means he has professional experience working with the FBI, though not experience working within it.

FBI agents might see that as a crucial difference.

They value their independence, which they feel is under attack from the White House. And they have reason not to trust that the Trump administration (and Trump family) is doing everything it can to help with the investigation.

The most recent example: the FBI hadn’t known about a June 2016 meeting between a Kremlin-connected lawyer and Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort — or about emails setting up the meeting that promised Trump Jr. “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary” as part of “Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump”

At the same time, it’s not clear what relationship Wray himself has with Trump’s family and inner circle. Wray represented Chris Christie when Christie was under investigation for his role in the “Bridgegate” scandal. Christie is an occasional member of Trump’s circle of advisers, but he was shut out of the White House — reportedly by first son-in-law Jared Kushner, who’s never forgiven Christie for prosecuting Kushner’s father. The appointment of an FBI director with ties to Christie might not be great news for Kushner, who is himself a “person of interest” in the Russia investigation.

The Trump administration’s relationship with the FBI was tense at best before the Comey firing. It’s gotten much worse since.

The administration criticized the FBI for leaking information to the press back in February — according to Comey, Trump once asked him to get more aggressive in prosecuting leaks. After the Comey firing, the leaks have turned into a deluge — from the information included in the memos Comey wrote to other FBI officials, to reports about the scope and status of Mueller’s investigation.

In turn, the FBI has felt that the White House is trying to exert improper political pressure on law enforcement. Agents still vocally support Comey (some of them wore “Comey Is My Homey” T-shirts to an annual social event). Comey, for his part, appealed to their professionalism and independence in his Senate hearing.

To stop the leaks, Wray will have to win the trust of an agency that has very little reason to trust any outsiders right now, and especially any outsiders appointed by Donald Trump. Wray’s not a politician, and his career suggests that he’s among the more qualified outsiders to run the agency. But he may have an impossible task.