What Christopher Wray learned from the last two FBI directors

Garrett M Graff writes: With a tweet Wednesday morning, President Trump announced his pick to replace James Comey as FBI director. Should the Senate confirm him, Christopher Wray will step into the job amid the controversial firing of his predecessor, and the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate that incident, as well as the larger swirling questions around Trump and Russia’s meddling with the 2016 election.

It’s no small task. The new FBI director will have to navigate the unique role of the Justice Department and the agency, whose ultimate loyalty is supposed to be to the Constitution, not to any political office-holder. Fortunately for Wray, he’s already seen how that works up close—and learned it at the hands of Comey and Mueller, two of the central figures in today’s political maelstrom.

In early 2004, Wray pulled Comey aside in a hallway of the Justice Department. The executive corridors of stately the building on Pennsylvania Avenue, known to its denizens as “Main Justice,” had been buzzing for days, but most senior leaders—including Wray—didn’t know precisely why. There had been late-night meetings and stressed looks on the faces of their colleagues. Rumors had circulated of a mass resignation of the department’s senior-most leaders, including the FBI director, Robert Mueller.

Wray, then the assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division—a job that Mueller himself had held 15 years earlier—cornered Comey who, as far as anyone could tell, was the central figure in whatever drama was playing out.

Unbeknownst to any but a select circle, Comey—then the department’s number-two—and Mueller had been facing off with the White House and Vice President Cheney over the constitutionality of an NSA surveillance program known as STELLAR WIND. Comey and the head of Justice Department’s in-house legal advisor, Jack Goldsmith, believed that the program violated the Constitution, and were refusing to approve it.

“Look, I don’t know what’s going on, but before you guys all pull the rip cords, please give me a heads-up so I can jump with you,” said Wray.

It didn’t come to that. Days later, Comey and Mueller voiced their concerns directly to President Bush, who agreed to allow changes to be made to STELLAR WIND. But for Wray, the episode was a signal lesson in the necessary independence, moral compass, and leadership necessary to succeed at the Justice Department.

“[Mueller] has a strong moral compass and I think that the great thing about strong moral compasses is that they don’t have to hand-wring,” Wray told me years later. “When they’re uncomfortable, they know what they have to do.” [Continue reading…]

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