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Who Is Christopher Wray? Trump's Choice for FBI Director Was Once Willing to Resign in Protest

Wray's potential return to Washington comes as the FBI looks to find its footing after the recent ouster of Director James Comey.
Christopher Wray is a litigation partner at King and Spalding.
Christopher Wray is a litigation partner at King and Spalding.King and Spalding

Christopher Wray, the former federal prosecutor now poised to replace James Comey as the FBI director, has in the past been willing to stand up in protest to a White House policy.

In 2004, he offered to team up with Comey, then the deputy attorney general, along with other top Justice Department officials and FBI Director Robert Mueller in threatening to resign over mounting concerns about the legality of the Bush administration's push to use warrantless wiretaps.

"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," Wray, then the chief of the DOJ's criminal division, reportedly told Comey in a hallway conversation.

The incident was included in the 2008 book, "Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency," by then-Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman. Wray's career and past decisions are being parsed after President Donald Trump announced in a surprise tweet Wednesday that he plans to nominate the veteran attorney as FBI director.

The move will require Senate confirmation — and is certain to be scrutinized after Trump canned Comey from the role last month amid an investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Related: Comey to Testify He Assured Trump He Was Not Personally Under Investigation

Wray's potential return to Washington — leading a team of more than 30,000 FBI employees scattered across 56 U.S. field offices — comes as the bureau looks to find its footing after the latest upheaval.

"Chris is a Republican and he served in a Republican administration," John Malcolm, a deputy under Wray in 2003 and 2004, told NBC News. "But he's quite aware that the FBI serves all Americans — not just Republicans or Democrats. He has a stiff backbone and I have no doubt that he will stand up for what's right."

Wray has previously come under Senate scrutiny

In October 2003, Wray was called to testify on Capitol Hill during an investigation into who leaked the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame.

The scandal ensnared journalists and government officials, including members of then-President George W. Bush's staff.

Wray, who oversaw the probe as head of the DOJ's criminal division, admitted to regularly briefing Attorney General John Ashcroft on key details of the investigation. Democrats at the time argued that Ashcroft's close ties with the White House could undermine the ongoing inquiry since he hadn't recused himself from the case.

But Wray, during his testimony, was quick to defend himself, too: "I can assure you that it has been made painfully clear to everyone involved that no punches are to be pulled in this investigation and that anybody who thinks that we are going to be pulling any punches in this investigation doesn't know the lawyers and the agents working on this investigation very well."

Then-Deputy U.S. Attorney General James B. Comey speaks with then-Assistant Attorney General Christopher Wray during a news conference at the Justice Department Dec. 15, 2004, in Washington D.C.Mark Wilson / Getty Images file

Months later, Wray gave his support to Comey and other DOJ officials who were unhappy after members of the Bush administration reportedly visited Ashcroft at the hospital to win his consent for aspects of the NSA's secret surveillance program.

Comey, who was acting attorney general while Ashcroft was having gallbladder surgery, refused to sign off. That prompted the bedside visit, according to The New York Times. But any en masse resignation never happened — ultimately, the wiretapping program was temporarily suspended and then revamped.

Malcolm said Wray was in constant contact with Comey because of their jobs. Wray at the time also had regular contact with the FBI's Mueller, who retired in 2013 but is back in the national spotlight: He is currently the special counsel leading the investigation into Russia's alleged role in last year's election — a post he was given after Comey was fired.

Wray's career has involved overseeing big cases

During his time at the DOJ, he was at the forefront of some of the most important events that took place in the 2000s, from the terror investigation into 9/11 to leading a task force that reviewed the corrupt collapse of the energy firm Enron.

A 2005 profile in The Atlanta-Journal Constitution noted that Wray, whose roots are in Georgia, spent his first day at the DOJ in 2001 sorting out how the FBI misplaced files in the trial against Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

He worked his way up the ranks and, in 2003, Bush nominated him to his assistant attorney general role in charge of the criminal division. The Senate unanimously confirmed him. Besides larger terrorism cases, Wray's team continued to go after child pornographers and drug traffickers.

"I think a lot of people thought all the focus would be on terrorism and everything else would go into the ditch," Wray told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "In fact, I think we’ve accomplished incredible things. I feel so fortunate to have had this job in this time.”

He left the department in 2005 and returned to private practice as a white-collar criminal defense attorney. He currently works for Spalding & King, an Atlanta-based legal giant where he began his career in 1993.

Most recently, Wray was the personal attorney for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose allies were found guilty in March of engineering lane closures at the George Washington Bridge in 2003 to punish a Democratic mayor. Christie was never charged in the incident and has maintained he was not aware of the closures until after the news broke.

Joe Robuck, a retired FBI special agent who previously worked with Wray and remained friends, said Wray called him after he interviewed with the White House last week about the FBI director position. Robuck was thrilled to hear Wednesday he got the job.

"What stands out about him is how even–keeled and calm under pressure he is," he added. "You can't fluster the man."

Wray married a fellow Yale graduate in 1989

Wray and his wife, Helen, met at Yale University, where they were members of the class of 1989, their New York Times wedding announcement said.

Helen's family has lived in Atlanta for seven generations and her great-grandfather, Clark Howell, once owned The Atlanta Constitution, according to The Atlanta-Journal Constitution.

Wray later enrolled at Yale Law School, where he graduated in 1992. The couple has a son and daughter, both in their 20s.

Wray supported Sally Yates when she was nominated for deputy attorney general in 2015

Yates was famously fired by Trump in January after she directed DOJ lawyers not to defend his executive order on immigration.

But two years ago, when she was up for deputy attorney general, King & Spalding sent a letter to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee praising Yates. She had began her career at that very law firm.

Wray was among the employees who signed the letter.

"Sally brings a wealth of practical experience as well as the highest standards of excellence and integrity to this position," the letter said.

Wray has donated to political campaigns of Georgia Republicans

Wray has given a total of about $50,000 to candidates for federal office and to his law firm’s political action committee since 2007, according to Federal Election Commission records.

He has also personally donated to Georgia Republicans Tom Price, David Perdue, Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson.

FEC records do not show any contributions to Trump.

King & Spalding's PAC, to which Wray has given money, has split its donations between Republicans and Democrats in recent cycles.