WASHINGTON (CN) – Christopher Wray, the man slated to replace former FBI director James Comey, appeared to break ranks with President Donald Trump on Wednesday, telling senators he doesn’t consider special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe a “witch hunt.”
The president has frequently criticized Mueller’s investigation, dubbing it a “witch hunt” or “phony” on Twitter and elsewhere on several occasions.
On Wednesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., lobbed a series of rapid-fire questions at Wray, demanding to know where he stood on a number of issues as the potential “top cop in the land.”
The questioning was terse and punctuated by Graham’s frequent interruptions.
After getting Wray’s assurances that he does not “consider Mueller to be on a witch hunt,” Graham turned to pressing him on the past several day’s revelations about Donald Trump Jr. and his enthusiastically agreeing to meet a Russian contact who promised to give him dirt on Hillary Clinton.
When asked if he was aware of the emails Trump revealed via Twitter on Tuesday, emails in which the president’s eldest son said he’d “love it” if the promises bore fruit, Wray at first deflected.
He said he hadn’t followed the story closely because he was tied up in meetings with members of Congress in the lead up to his hearing.
Graham then gave him a crash course in the controversy, reading passages from the emails between Trump Jr. and his fixer for the June 2016 meeting, Rob Goldstone.
“Should Trump Jr. have taken that meeting?” Sen. Graham asked.
“I’m hearing it for the first time,” Wray began, before the senator interrupted him.
“Well, let me ask you this. If I got a call saying the Russian government wants to help Lindsey Graham get elected, should I take that meeting?” Graham asked.
Wray suggested consultation with legal advisors and began to trail off before Graham jumped in.
“Should I call the FBI?” Graham asked. “You’re going to be director of the FBI, so, I want everyone to know here, if you get a call from someone saying that a foreign government wants to give you information – tell us all if we should call the FBI?”
Wray did not answer definitively, instead responding, “Any threat or effort to interfere with our election by any nation state or any non-state actor is the kind of thing the FBI would want to know.”
Graham sought further clarification. Is Russia an adversary of the United States?
“Friend or enemy,” he asked.
“I think Russia is a foreign nation that we have to deal with very warily,” Wray said.
Pushing further, Graham asked: “Do you think they’re an adversary trying to compromise our election or is this an adversarial move on their part?”
Wray said he did, adding his own vote of confidence to the intelligence community’s public assessment of Russian meddling in the election.
He said he has not yet reviewed the FBI’s private reports, but as far as what is already in the public domain, he said he has “no reason to doubt them.”
Evidently satisfied Graham had covered the subject of Trump Jr. and his contacts with the Russians, Democrats on the panel turned to lingering concerns over the abrupt firing of James Comey in May.
At different points, Democratic senators Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Diane Feinstein of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, asked the former assistant attorney general if he was ever asked to pledge a loyalty oath to anyone, as Comey told Congress the president once asked him to do at a private dinner meeting.
Wray said he had not, adding, “My loyalty is to the Constitution, the rule of law and the mission of the FBI. Nobody asked me for any loyalty oath and I sure as heck didn’t offer one.”
The Yale Law School alum, who now works in private practice with the firm King and Spalding, also told senators that he considers any attempt to tamper with Robert Mueller’s investigation as “unacceptable.”
“Will you alert the committee if you witness or learn of any efforts to interfere with [Mueller’s] work?” Sen. Feinstein asked.
“Assuming I can do so legally, yes. I’ve worked with him before and view him as the consummate straight-shooter,” Wray said. “He’s someone I have enormous respect for and I’ll do what I can to support him.”
Feinstein asked Wray if he planned to alert the judiciary committee if he caught even the slightest hint that a scheme or plot to interfere in the investigation was brewing.
“I would consult with the appropriate officials to make sure I’m not jeopardizing investigations but I would consider an effort to tamper with his investigation unacceptable. It would need to be dealt with very sternly, indeed,” Wray assured her.
So far as inside information about Comey’s firing goes, Wray said he had nothing to offer.
He told the committee that he only knew Comey was fired when the job was offered to him by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Wray has received support from most Republican members of Congress. Democrats appeared slightly more critical of Wray’s experience.
Wray was asked several times if he recalled providing input to the Justice Department on torture and interrogation memos drafted in the early 2000s.
The memos detailed enhanced interrogation tactics used by U.S. forces including waterboarding and sleep deprivation.
Wray denied reviewing the memos, “much less providing input or comments, blessings or approval,” he said.
He said he did not and would not approve of torture tactics being used in the future.
“That’s the same answer Comey gave me when I asked that question,” Sen. Leahy said.