RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This morning President Trump's pick to run the FBI is testifying on Capitol Hill. Former Justice Department lawyer Christopher Wray was tapped by the White House after a drawn-out search to replace James Comey when he was fired abruptly by the president at the beginning of May. NPR congressional reporter Geoff Bennett is on Capitol Hill watching the confirmation hearing. He joins me now. Hey, Geoff.
GEOFF BENNETT, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.
MARTIN: So the reason we're in the midst of this confirmation hearing is because President Trump fired James Comey. He later said he was thinking about the Russia investigation when he did that, which then raised questions about the - whether the president was trying to pressure Comey to ease up on the Russia investigation. So that's a long way of asking how long did it take for someone - one of these lawmakers - to ask a question about Wray's ability to be independent?
BENNETT: Rachel, it was the very first question the committee chairman Chuck Grassley put to Wray this morning. And one imagines that he was prepared to get that question. And he said he'd never allow the FBI work to be driven by anything other than the facts. And then, he said this.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CHRISTOPHER WRAY: Anybody who thinks that I would be pulling punches as the FBI director sure doesn't know me very well.
BENNETT: And so, you know, Christopher Wray is sitting in the witness seat. But I'll tell you that it's as if the ghost of James Comey is hovering in the room because, you know, as you say, the entire impetus for this entire confirmation hearing is President Trump's abrupt firing of James Comey. And that's why we're seeing senators on the panel, particularly Democrats, you know, launch into a series of questions about Wray's loyalty to the president, his view on the FBI's authority, his - the view on - his view on the FBI's independence and how he plans to coordinate with special counsel Robert Mueller. And the reason why this is all important is because just this morning, President Trump again dismissed the federal Russia investigation as a witch hunt.
MARTIN: So it's worth noting, this is a man, Christopher Wray, who worked with James Comey. He worked for James Comey in the FBI, right?
BENNETT: That's right. And lately, he - you know, he's a well-respected, white-collar lawyer. He's actually giving up a $9 million salary to take this job if he's confirmed. My colleague Carrie Johnson, who covers the Justice Department - she spoke with a lot of Wray's friends and colleagues. And the people she spoke with tend to use words like steady and calm and principled and fearless to describe him. But, you know, to - more to the point, to the question that you asked, he's a 50-year-old former federal prosecutor. And he has a lot of experience working in and around the Justice Department. Some people might know this. But he was one of several lawyers who represented Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie around the Bridgegate scandal.
But there are, you know - there are a few questions about his tenure, particularly during the Bush years, because some civil liberties groups said they have a lot of questions about his race - government service after September 11, particularly about the Bush administration's use of torture and coercive interrogation tactics. But today, during the hearing, Ray said - on the record he said torture is wrong. It's unacceptable. It's illegal, and I think it's ineffective.
MARTIN: So all this is unfolding, also, as the allegations circle around Donald Trump Jr. and this meeting he held with a Russian lawyer about getting dirt on Hillary Clinton. Did Russia come up explicitly in this hearing yet?
BENNETT: It hasn't so far. Senator Dianne Feinstein, who's the ranking Democrat on the committee, asked Ray if he'd had any conversations with anyone in the White House about Donald Trump's decision to fire Comey. Remember that Trump said that the Russia investigation was the primary reason why he fired Comey. Ray said that he did not have any conversations about that - about that instance.
MARTIN: Congressional reporter Geoff Bennett for us today. Thanks so much, Jeff.
BENNETT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.