NEW: Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Wednesday she'll back Trump's pick to be FBI director
Chris Wray came up as a top official in the Justice Department under George W. Bush
President Donald Trump’s pick to run the FBI pledged his independence Wednesday, repeatedly telling a Senate panel at his confirmation hearing he would not be “pulling punches” in the position and that he’d resign if he is asked to do something illegal or immoral.
“My commitment is to the rule of law, to the Constitution, to follow the facts wherever they may lead,” Wray told the Senate judiciary committee. “And there isn’t a person on this planet whose lobbying or influence could convince to just drop or abandon a properly predicated and meritorious investigation.”
Wray faced sharp questions – including from Republicans – over his decision-making process, the independence of the FBI and Russian meddling into the US election, including the most recent revelations related to the President’s eldest son and his meeting with a Russian lawyer. In his responses, Wray repeatedly and emphatically promised his commitment to running the agency without outside influence and with high standards or he would step down.
Despite recent turmoil surrounding the administration, Wray’s testimony convinced at least one Democrat he was suited for the job. The committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, said after the morning’s questioning, she planned to vote for Wray’s confirmation.
Wray during his testimony told Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont that no one in the administration asked him for a “loyalty pledge,” as former FBI Director James Comey alleged Trump asked for earlier this year.
“And I as sure as heck didn’t offer one,” Wray said.
Wray also said that Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller is not on a “witch hunt,” as the President has alleged.
“I do not consider Director Mueller to be on a witch hunt,” Wray said.
Republican Sens. Ben Sasse and Lindsey Graham directly addressed the most recent developments related to the Trump campaign and Russian interference with the US election.
Last summer, Donald Trump Jr. agreed to meet with Natalia Veselnitskaya, whom he believed to be a “Russian government attorney” after receiving an email offering him “very high level and sensitive information” that would “incriminate” Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, according to emails the younger Trump publicly released on Tuesday.
In a dramatic exchange, Graham, a South Carolina Republican, grilled Wray on Donald Trump Jr.’s email exchange with a Russian lawyer.
Graham read Wray the exchange and asked how he would advise him if he wanted to take a campaign meeting with a foreign adversary.
“I would think you would want to consult with some good legal advisers before you do that,” Wray replied.
Graham responded, “You’re going to be the director of the FBI, pal!”
Wray responded saying as with “any threat or effort to interfere with our election” that “the FBI would want to know.”
Leahy also asked Wray how he’d respond if the President asked him to do something unethical or unlawful.
“First, I would try to talk him out of it, and if that failed, I would resign,” Wray said.
Trump’s selection of Wray, a former federal prosecutor who enjoys broad bipartisan support, has been viewed as a rare bright spot amid the calamity spurred by the President’s firing of Comey in May.
But Wray is appearing in front of one of the at least four congressional committees looking into Russian interference in the election, just as Trump Jr.’s meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya has reignited questions about the Trump campaign’s involvement. A Justice Department-appointed special counsel is also investigating Russian interference in last year’s election.
Grassley played up Wray’s bipartisan bona fides in his opening statement – an implicit nod to concerns lodged by critics in the wake of Comey’s firing.
“It’s vitally important for the FBI director to be independent. In reviewing his record. I’ve seen Mr. Wray’s commitment to independence. He’s prosecuted ‘little guys’ and ‘big guys,’ including a major league baseball player, gun-traffickers, and RICO violators. He’s prosecuted folks on both sides of the political spectrum, including folks working on a Republican campaign,” Grassley said.
In a twist, Grassley later filed through a series of complaints against the acting FBI director, Andrew McCabe, arguing that he was too partisan and too close to the Clintons.
Trump Jr.’s attorney has dismissed the interaction with the lawyer and the disclosure of that meeting as “much ado about nothing” and Trump Jr. said in a statement Tuesday morning that he thought the information being offered was “Political Opposition Research.”
“I first wanted to just have a phone call but when that didn’t work out, they said the woman would be in New York and asked if I would meet. I decided to take the meeting. The woman, as she has said publicly, was not a government official,” Trump Jr. said in a statement he tweeted along with the emails. “And, as we have said, she had no information to provide and wanted to talk about adoption policy and the Magnitsky Act.”
White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders read a statement from the President defending his son during an off-camera briefing with reporters Tuesday.
“My son is a high-quality person and I applaud his transparency,” Sanders said, reading a statement from Trump.
Wray came up as a top official in the Justice Department under George W. Bush, before going into private practice. As a private lawyer, he represented New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie when he was interviewed by the FBI as part of the Bridgegate scandal.
Last month, the Senate judiciary committee released last month a comprehensive, 68-page questionnaire that Wray had filled out.
The Office of Government Ethics released a financial disclosure earlier this week from Wray that shows he received a partnership share from his Atlanta law firm of $9.2 million over the current and previous calendar year.
This story has been updated and will update with additional news.
CNN’s Jeremy Diamond and Dylan Stafford contributed to this report.