FBI nominee vows to resign if Trump crosses legal line

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump rips Dems' demands, impeachment talk: 'Witch Hunt continues!' Nevada Senate passes bill that would give Electoral College votes to winner of national popular vote The Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi remains firm despite new impeachment push MORE’s pick to lead the FBI on Wednesday repeatedly sought to reassure lawmakers that he would lead the bureau with a strict commitment to maintaining independence from the White House. 

Chris Wray, 50, told lawmakers that he does not believe the federal investigation into Russian election meddling is a “witch hunt,” contradicting the president’s own characterization of the probe. 

In calm and understated testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Wray said that he would avoid one-on-one encounters with the president and that he would resign if asked to do anything unlawful.

“First, I would try to talk him out of it, and if that failed, then I would resign,” he said.

“Anybody who thinks I would be pulling punches as the FBI director sure doesn’t know me very well,” he said earlier. 

Wray, a former senior Justice Department official under President George W. Bush, is a relatively uncontroversial choice to replace James Comey, whom Trump fired this spring. 

Yet the circumstances surrounding Comey’s dismissal made Wray’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee a high-stakes affair.

The president has said the federal investigation into his campaign and Russia was on his mind when he made the decision to fire Comey — and the former director has publicly testified since that Trump demanded his political loyalty and repeatedly badgered him on the investigation, now in the hands of special counsel Robert Mueller.

“All of this raises important questions for the next FBI head and particularly for his independence,” said ranking member Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinThis week: Democrats, White House set for infrastructure, budget talks Senate confirms Rosen for No. 2 spot at DOJ Senate confirms controversial 9th Circuit pick without blue slips MORE (D-Calif.). “The FBI director does not serve the president. He serves the Constitution and the American people.”

Wray repeatedly echoed that principle, vowing that his loyalty would be to the Constitution and the American people.

“I think the relationship between any FBI director and any president needs to be a professional one, not a social one,” he added later. “And there certainly shouldn't be any discussion between the FBI director and any president about how to conduct particular investigations or cases.”

He said that any effort to "tamper with" Mueller's investigation would be "unacceptable and inappropriate," and vowed that he would notify the committee of any such effort if appropriate.

“I do not consider Director Mueller to be on a witch hunt,” he said.

Wray assured lawmakers that he had not been asked to give any kind of oath of loyalty during his confirmation process — “and I sure as heck wouldn’t offer one.”

He also obliquely criticized his predecessor’s decision to publicly announce that no charges would be brought in the Clinton email investigation. “I can’t imagine a situation where I would be giving a press conference on an uncharged individual,” he said.

The sharp focus on Wray’s commitment to traditional Justice Department principles highlighted the degree to which the bureau has become embroiled in political controversy during and after the 2016 elections.

“I don’t think the FBI is a political body, not the rank-and-file members. But I worry about the perception that some Americans might have,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.).

In perhaps the most heated moment of the hearing, Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamCongress, White House near deal on spending, debt limit Hillicon Valley: Google delays cutting off Huawei | GOP senators split over breaking up big tech | Report finds DNC lagging behind RNC on cybersecurity Roger Stone considers suing to discover if he was spied on by FBI MORE (R-S.C.) pressed Wray on emails recently published by Donald Trump Jr., showing that he accepted a meeting during the campaign with a Russian lawyer purportedly offering damaging information on Clinton.

Graham repeatedly pressed Wray on whether the meeting was appropriate and whether the FBI should have been promptly notified. Wray declined to comment on the specifics, arguing that he had only just learned the contents of the emails when Graham read them aloud, but eventually responded in the hypothetical.

"You're going to be the director of the FBI, pal,” Graham cut in. “So here's what I want you to tell every politician: If you get a call from somebody suggesting that a foreign government wants to help you by disparaging your opponent, tell us all to call the FBI.”

“To the members of this committee, any threat or effort to interfere with our elections from any nation-state or any nonstate actor is the kind of the thing the FBI would want to know,” Wray replied.

In spite of the roiling controversy over Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election, Wray’s appearance was at multiple points a workaday, by-the-numbers confirmation hearing. He took questions on several key challenges facing the bureau, from violent crime to the rise of encrypted communications platforms.

In response to questioning from Feinstein, Wray affirmed that he believes torture to be “wrong,” “unacceptable” and “illegal.” Bush appointee John Yoo had claimed that Wray had participated in Office of Legal Counsel memos underpinning that administration’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques; Wray testified Wednesday that he had not reviewed or provided input on those memos.

If confirmed, Wray will be tasked with rebuilding the morale of a workforce that by all accounts was deeply disaffected by Comey’s dismissal.

Wray appears poised to sail through to confirmation. Feinstein told reporters during a brief break in the hearing that she was a “yes” on the former prosecutor. Republicans were equally bullish — Graham opened his questions by saying that he believed Wray would be an “outstanding” director.

“As you’ve reiterated again and again, your willingness to resign if ever forced to politicize an investigation — I think that’s why you hear so much bipartisan support for your confirmation,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said.