Politics

Why Five Democrats Voted Against Confirming the New FBI Director

Reasons include Trump, ‘Bridgegate’ and warrantless surveillance

Sen. Elizabeth Warren was one of five Democrats to oppose confirmation of Christopher Wray as FBI director. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Five Senate Democrats who voted against Christopher Wray’s confirmation as FBI director had all offered reasons why by Wednesday afternoon.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren focused on questions about Wray’s independence from President Donald Trump.

“Christopher Wray is a thoughtful and experienced individual, and it is my strong hope that he will prove to be an independent FBI Director who places the rule of law above all other considerations,” the Massachusetts Democrat said in a statement to CQ Roll Call. “The FBI already has an acting director, however, and I cannot in good conscience support the confirmation of a replacement handpicked by the same president who fired former Director Jim Comey in part for refusing to pledge his personal loyalty, and who has continued to launch almost daily attacks on the integrity of the acting FBI Director and the Justice Department itself simply for doing their jobs.”

The Senate voted 92-5 to confirm Wray on Tuesday.

Warren’s commonwealth colleague, Sen. Edward J. Markey, also voted against Trump’s nominee over concerns about the development of potential back doors for access to encrypted communications, a Markey aide said.

That’s similar to the reason for Sen. Ron Wyden’s opposition. The Oregon Democrat is a senior member of the Intelligence Committee who is outspoken about the importance of civil liberties protections with respect to federal surveillance powers.

“In his public and private statements, Chris Wray failed to oppose government backdoors into Americans’ personal devices, or to acknowledge the facts about encryption — that it isn’t about liberty versus security, it’s about more security versus less security,” Wyden said. “While I appreciate his willingness to continue studying the issue, other officials who have talked about finding common ground have turned around and sought to fatally undermine the cornerstone of Americans’ cybersecurity.”

Oregon’s junior senator, Jeff Merkley, had several reasons for opposing Wray’s confirmation, including some concerns he shared with Markey and Wyden.

“Wray argued before Congress that the USA Patriot Act had strong and substantial safeguards to prevent its being abused to spy on Americans, but it later was revealed that many such abuses had taken place,” Merkley said in a statement to CQ Roll Call.

New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand had a different set of issues with Wray. She told CQ Roll Call in a statement that her opposition was partly based on the FBI nominee’s connection to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, as well as her doubts about Wray’s willingness to stand up to Trump.

“A recent news report revealed that Mr. Wray received millions of dollars of New Jersey taxpayer money in secret while doing non-transparent legal work for Governor Christie, who reportedly later recommended him to the President. His actions raise serious questions about whether he can be counted on to reliably place the public’s interest over what is politically expedient for the executive who hired him,” Gillibrand said. “This nomination is too important and I am not willing to take that leap of faith.”

Many Democrats, particularly those on the Judiciary Committee, accepted Wray’s commitment to independence from the Trump administration, as well as assurances that the FBI would work with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and the team probing Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Like Gillibrand, Merkley was not among them.

The Oregon Democrat made specific reference to the connection between Wray and the so-called Bridgegate scandal in New Jersey. (Wray served as Christie’s counsel during the controversy.) 

“We need an FBI Director who is unquestionably independent and above the fray of partisan politics,” Merkley said. “This has never been more important than now, when our President has made repeated and substantial efforts to interfere in the FBI’s investigation of Russian meddling in our election and any potential contacts or coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia. Unfortunately, Wray does not meet this test.”

The liberal group CREDO Action chided Senate Democratic leadership for backing confirmation of the new FBI director, while praising the five opponents.

“A man under a cloud of investigation for potentially obstructing justice by firing the last FBI director should not under any circumstances be rewarded with bipartisan support for his replacement,” said CREDO political director Murshed Zaheed. “Senators Gillibrand, Markey, Merkley, Warren and Wyden deserve credit for standing with the resistance and voting against Christopher Wray’s confirmation.”

Prior to Tuesday afternoon, Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul was the only senator ever to vote against confirmation of an FBI director.

Paul opposed confirmation of James B. Comey, the nominee of President Barack Obama, whom Trump fired in May, setting the stage for the Wray confirmation.

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