By Julia Edwards Ainsley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump's pick to head the FBI, Christopher Wray, on Wednesday said he would refuse to pledge loyalty to Trump, rejected his description of the probe into Russian election meddling as a "witch hunt," and vowed to quit if told by the president to do something unlawful.
Wray, nominated by Trump on June 7 to replace the fired James Comey as Federal Bureau of Investigation director, firmly sought to establish independence from the Republican president and even said it would be "highly unlikely" that he would agree to meet him in a one-on-one situation.
Wray appeared at his U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing amid an uproar in Washington over 2016 emails released on Tuesday involving the president's son, Donald Trump Jr. The emails showed the president's son agreeing last year to meet a woman he was told was a Russian government lawyer who might have damaging information about Democratic White House rival Hillary Clinton as part of Moscow's official support for his father.
Wray deflected specific questions from Republican Senator Lindsey Graham about the president's son's emails, but said, "Any threats or effort to interfere with our election from any nation-state or any non-state actor is the kind of thing the FBI would want to know."
Trump's son did not notify the FBI and wrote that "I love it" of the Russian's offer of information about Clinton.
Wray, who appeared on target to win confirmation, also said he had no reason to doubt the U.S. intelligence community's finding that Russia interfered with the election to help Trump get elected in part by hacking and releasing emails damaging to Clinton.
In the aftermath of Comey's firing, the Justice Department named Robert Mueller, himself a former FBI director, to serve as special counsel looking into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race to help Trump get elected and potential collusion between Moscow and Trump associates.
Trump fired Comey on May 9 and later cited the "Russia thing" as his reason.
Trump often has called the Russia probe a "witch hunt." The Russia matter has dogged Trump's first six months in office.
"I do not consider Director Mueller to be on a witch hunt," Wray told Republican Graham.
Wray and Comey served together in the Justice Department under Republican former President George W. Bush, and both worked on the government's case in the Enron Corp fraud scandal in the early to mid-2000s.
Wray said he was "very committed" to supporting Mueller in the special counsel investigation, calling him "the consummate straight shooter and somebody I have enormous respect for."
Dianne Feinstein asked Wray to tell the committee "if you learn about any machinations to tamper with" Mueller's probe.
"Understood," Wray responded.
NO LOYALTY OATH
Wray said he spoke with no one at the White House about Comey's firing. He said no one at the White House had demanded that he pledge his loyalty to Trump, as Comey said the president demanded of him, and said he would not give such an assurance if asked.
"My loyalty is to the Constitution, to the rule of law and to the mission of the FBI. And no one asked me for any kind of loyalty oath at any point during this process, and I sure as heck didn't offer one," Wray said.
Comey previously testified to the same committee that Trump pressed him in a one-on-one session to drop the FBI investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn's ties to Russia and said he felt he was fired in a bid by the president to undercut the Russia probe.
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy asked Wray, "If the president asks you to do something unlawful or unethical, what do you say?"
"First, I would try to talk him out of it. And if that failed, I would resign," Wray said.
Asked by Democratic Senator Dick Durbin if he would ever meet in the Oval Office with the president with no one else present, Wray said, "I think it would be highly unlikely."
Wray is a former U.S. Justice Department lawyer who has prosecuted and defended white-collar crime cases and represented New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in a political scandal.
The allegation involving Trump pressing Comey over the Flynn probe raised questions about whether Trump's behavior amounted to obstruction of justice, a potential issue in any potential future effort in Congress to impeach the Republican president and remove him from office.
Wray repeatedly vowed independence.
"There's only one right way to do this job, and that is with strict independence, by the book, playing it straight, faithful to the Constitution, faithful to our laws, and faithful to the best practices of the institution, without fear, without favoritism and certainly without regard to any partisan political influence," Wray said.
(Reporting by Julia Edwards Ainsley; Editing by Will Dunham)