WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump on Wednesday ended a fraught month-long search for an FBI chief after firing James Comey by selecting Christopher Wray, who has prosecuted and defended white-collar crime cases and represented New Jersey’s governor in a political scandal.
Wray, who must be confirmed to the post by the Senate, and Comey served together in the Justice Department under former President George Bush, and both worked on the government’s case in the Enron Corp fraud scandal in the early to mid-2000s.
Trump’s announcement that he will nominate Wray as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation came a day before Comey’s eagerly anticipated public testimony before a Senate committee.
Ahead of the testimony, Comey said in a statement on Wednesday that Trump told him on Jan. 27 that “I expect loyalty” and in a meeting on Feb. 14 asked him to back off from a probe into former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s ties with Russia.
Trump’s search for a replacement for Comey after firing him May 9 was difficult. Leading candidates including former Senator Joe Lieberman took their names out of consideration, and Trump interviewed a series of contenders.
In a statement, Trump called Wray “an impeccably qualified individual.” Trump said, “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.”
Wray and Comey helped bring the case against Kenneth Lay, the former Enron chairman convicted in 2006. Also involved in the Enron matter was Robert Mueller, then FBI director and now special counsel named after Comey was fired to investigate possible collusion between Russia and Trump’s 2016 election campaign, as well as Andrew Weissman, who is now working for Mueller.
Wray served from 2003 to 2005 at the Justice Department under former President George W. Bush as an assistant attorney general in charge of its criminal division.
The web of Enron connections underscores the reliance in Washington, even under a president who vowed to “drain the swamp,” on an elite corps of corporate lawyers whose varied careers often intersect and who sometimes present conflict-of-interest issues.
For instance, after he left the Justice Department and joined top international law firm King & Spalding, Wray represented New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in the so-called Bridgegate scandal.
That case and others taken on by Wray while in private practice could pose problems, said American Civil Liberties Union National Political Director Faiz Shakir in a statement.
“Christopher Wray’s firm’s legal work for the Trump family, his history of partisan activity, as well as his history of defending Trump’s transition director during a criminal scandal makes us question his ability to lead the FBI,” Shakir said.
Wray represented Christie in a scandal that resulted in two of the governor’s aides being convicted. Christie, who was a close adviser to Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign and whose name was floated as a possible Comey replacement, was never charged.
Christie on Wednesday called Wray “an outstanding choice, a non-political choice” to head the FBI.
Apart from possible conflicts, another question about Wray is whether the longtime white-collar lawyer is equipped to take over an agency that is increasingly focused on detecting and combating terrorism, espionage and cybercrime.
“There are questions about whether he is experienced enough in intelligence, counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, computer crimes, and issues like that,” said one senior U.S. law enforcement official who asked not to be identified.
“The biggest test the bureau is likely to face is not another Enron,” the official said.
A second official, who also agreed to discuss Wray’s qualifications on the condition of anonymity, said Trump’s nominee lacks significant international experience at a time when much of the FBI’s work involves cooperating with foreign intelligence agencies to detect terrorists in foreign countries plotting attacks in the United States.
Wray represented Credit Suisse AG (CSGN.S) in a major tax prosecution by the Justice Department, which alleged the Swiss bank helped clients hide offshore accounts from the Internal Revenue Service. Credit Suisse in 2014 pleaded guilty and agreed to pay $2.6 billion to authorities.
Wray also represented Johnson & Johnson (JNJ.N) unit Janssen Pharmaceuticals when it pleaded guilty in 2013 to marketing schizophrenia drug Risperdal for an unapproved use. He also represented J&J subsidiary Ortho-McNeil-Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc in a Justice Department action over the off-label use of epilepsy drug Topomax.
Trump announced his selection of Wray in a surprise, early-morning Twitter message. Some Democratic lawmakers said the president’s timing seemed designed to distract from Comey’s scheduled testimony on Thursday.
“It is imperative that the next FBI director be of unimpeachable integrity and independence,” Nancy Pelosi, the top House of Representatives Democrat, said. “In light of the president’s constant efforts to block the truth, the nomination of Christopher Wray should be subject to the utmost scrutiny.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has recused himself from the Russia investigation but played a role in Comey’s ouster, called Wray “a leader of proven skill, independence and integrity, a man in whom all Americans can have confidence.”
Republican House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters he did not know Wray but that his resume suggests he is “the perfect kind of person” for the job.
Additional reporting by John Walcott, Susan Heavey, Susan Cornwell, Barbara Goldberg, Richard Cowan, Eric Walsh, Doina Chiacu and Karen Freifeld