Senate Democrats were outraged when President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey this May, calling the decision “Nixonian” and possibly part of a cover-up over Russian election interference.
But they now appear to be doing little to stand in opposition to Christopher Wray, the former prosecutor Trump has chosen as Comey’s replacement — in part because they think Wray is qualified, and in part because they don’t see a better alternative.
On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee moved unanimously to send Wray’s nomination to the full body of the Senate, with all the Democrats voting in favor. He’s expected to be swiftly confirmed on a bipartisan basis, though Senate Republicans would have enough votes to confirm him even if all Democrats united in opposition.
“I met with him. I think he’s a straight-up guy. I think he’s the right guy for the job,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) said of Wray.
Being forced to approve Trump’s nominee will be a bitter pill for some on the left to swallow, given their fury at the circumstances under which the president dismissed Comey in the first place. But Wray’s nomination has earned several Senate Democrats’ support because they believe he’d serve as an effective check on the president, and because they’d prefer to save their ammunition for another battle.
The argument over supporting Wray
Senate Democrats give several reasons for planning to support Wray. But perhaps their key explanation is that the FBI needs a director who will apply the law independent of Trump’s capricious whims. Wray, they believe, seems likely to do so.
“I think in this man, we have somebody who understands the process of justice, who is committed to an appropriate and positive process, is committed to the law, the Constitution, and the people,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) told reporters last week.
Senate Democrats want someone to serve as a buffer between Trump and special counsel Robert Mueller. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from the investigation into Trump’s connections to Russia, and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s objectivity is compromised in the eyes of many critics. Wray, who was willing to repeatedly contradict Trump at his confirmation hearing, appears to Senate Democrats to be a safe bet.
“My job is to make sure the FBI has a strong and responsible leader,” Sen. Angus King (I-ME), who caucuses with the Democrats, said in an interview. “The FBI needs a director, this is a very important agency and I think the question should be, ‘Is this man qualified to be independent? Will he be a strong leader for the FBI? That should be the criteria.”
Not everyone on the left has been happy with Senate Democrats’ support for Wray. The New Republic’s Brian Beutler penned an op-ed last week imploring Democrats to “vote en masse” against Wray. And two progressive advocacy groups, CREDO and Democracy for America, have adopted similar lines.
“How can we expect Democrats to fight if Trump fires Mueller when they can’t cast basic ‘no’ votes?” said Murshed Zaheed, CREDO’s political director. “If Senate Democrats don’t have the backbone to stand up to Trump’s dangerous regime, they might as well go home and find a new line of work.”
Added Neil Sroka, a spokesperson for DFA: “If Democrats were to vote to approve Wray for FBI director, it would tell Trump he could force out anyone for any time for any reason of his choosing. Our view is you cannot separate Comey’s being fired from the appointment of Wray to his position. Those are not severable.”
But Wray certainly seems like a more neutral choice from the more partisan FBI directors Trump was reportedly considering, including former Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX). And Sen. Tester added that he didn’t understand why Comey’s firing would be relevant for Wray’s nomination. “That’s crazy,” he said of CREDO’s argument. “I think this guy is qualified. And I think it’s very difficult to have credibility if you vote against qualified people.”