Trump faces tough choices in FBI pick

Trump faces tough choices in FBI pick
© Getty

President Trump is standing at a crossroads as he chooses the next director of the FBI. 

Will he choose a loyalist to replace the man he fired, James Comey? Will it be a popular Republican politician, like Sen. John CornynJohn CornynThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump and Congress at odds over Russia Senate GOP attempts to wave Trump off second Putin summit Senators push to clear backlog in testing rape kits MORE (Texas)?

Or will Trump place a high value on a candidate who would be a reassuring voice to an organization reportedly shaken by Comey’s firing? 

The Justice Department interviewed eight candidates over the weekend, three of whom are current or former politicians and none of whom have the kind of nonpartisan support that Comey had when former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaMontana governor raises profile ahead of potential 2020 bid Trump was right to ditch UN’s plan for handling migrants Ex-White House stenographer: Trump is ‘lying to the American people’ MORE selected him in 2013.

Trump is reportedly considering other candidates and is vowing to name a new director by the end of the week.

The FBI has a long tradition of safeguarding its political independence — no politician has ever taken the helm of the bureau — and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are concerned that if Trump chooses a politician, he could upend that convention.

Stoking those fears are reports that allies of Comey believe the former director was fired because he refused to pledge his loyalty to the president during a dinner meeting in January.

“My fear is that he will go the politician route, and name someone who will be more loyal to him,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a frequent Trump critic who is retiring in 2018.

“That’s not what we want in an FBI director. The president has to trust the FBI director, but not have someone be loyal to him. They should be loyal to the Constitution and to the task of the FBI.”

Much of the focus so far has been on whether he will choose Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate.

The move could appeal to Cornyn, who is term-limited in his leadership position. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSunk judicial pick spills over into Supreme Court fight Hillicon Valley: Trump's Russia moves demoralize his team | Congress drops effort to block ZTE deal | Rosenstein warns of foreign influence threat | AT&T's latest 5G plans On The Money: Trump 'ready' for tariffs on all 0B in Chinese goods | Trump digs in on Fed criticism | Lawmakers drop plans to challenge Trump ZTE deal MORE (R-Ky.) is not expected to retire, potentially booting Cornyn out of leadership after 2018.

But even some Republicans aren’t crazy about the idea.

They say that under normal circumstances, Cornyn could be a great choice. But times aren’t normal.

“I think it’s now time to pick somebody that comes from within the ranks or has such a reputation that has no political background at all, that can go into the job on day one,” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamQuestions mount over Trump-Putin discussions The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and Congress at odds over Russia Overnight Defense: Trump inviting Putin to DC | Senate to vote Monday on VA pick | Graham open to US-Russia military coordination in Syria MORE (R-S.C.) told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“Under normal circumstances,” he said, Cornyn “would be a superb choice.”

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsThe Hill's Morning Report — Russia furor grips Washington Overnight Health Care: Novartis pulls back on drug price hikes | House Dems launch Medicare for All caucus | Trump officials pushing ahead on Medicaid work requirements Senate panel to vote next week on banning 'gag clauses' in pharmacy contracts MORE (R-Maine), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, offered a similar view.

“I think the world of John Cornyn, and he would be a great choice in normal times, but we’re not living in normal times,” she told CNN Monday.

While Cornyn is liked among his Republican colleagues — giving him a bloc of powerful allies should he conflict with the White House once at the bureau — he would likely face a rough confirmation process at the hands of frustrated Democrats.

If Republicans stick together, Democrats couldn’t block his confirmation, but they will almost certainly paint him as a political choice.

While he withheld his endorsement until Trump became the GOP’s presumptive nominee for president, from his seat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Cornyn has hewed closely to the administration line in that panel’s investigation into Russian interference in the election.

Rep. Trey GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdyWill Congress ever hold our federal agencies accountable for contempt? Dem lawmaker calls on House to subpoena American translator from Trump-Putin meeting The Hill's Morning Report — Trump isolated and denounced after Putin meeting MORE (R-S.C.), who was also interviewed over the weekend but has since taken himself out of the running, would have likely sparked an even more intense backlash. The architect of the House investigation into the terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, Gowdy is broadly viewed as intensely partisan.

It’s unclear how seriously Trump is considering any of the eight candidates. The president has a long history of floating out numerous names for open positions — some serious, some not.

One political figure on the list might satisfy skeptics: former Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.).

Rogers, who held the gavel on the House Intelligence Committee and is a former agent at the bureau, reportedly has a solid reputation inside the J. Edgar Hoover Building as a straight shooter.

But broadly, former officials say, a political choice will not sit well within the bureau.

“I don’t think a politician is the right pick at this moment,” a former bureau official told The Hill. “Especially at this sensitive moment where we’re under so much scrutiny, being accused of bias.”

Asked if any of the eight candidates interviewed over the weekend would satisfy the rank-and-file agents within the bureau, he replied, “I don’t see any in that list.”

The FBI Agents Association (FBIAA) has endorsed Rogers for the second time. The group also supported the Michigan lawmaker in 2013, when Comey won the job. The FBIAA represents 13,000 active and former agents. The bureau employs 35,000 people, and it is unclear how many of the FBIAA’s members are active agents.

Trump could undercut the allegations that the dismissal of Comey was an attempt to stifle the FBI’s investigation of his campaign’s ties to Russia by elevating a current bureau official, some national security experts say.

Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe interviewed over the weekend but may be a long shot to get the job.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleySunk judicial pick spills over into Supreme Court fight Andrew Wheeler must reverse damage to American heartland Senators push to clear backlog in testing rape kits MORE (R-Iowa) opposes him, citing “political problems.” McCabe is under investigation by the Justice Department inspector general over a donation from Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) to McCabe’s wife’s bid for the state legislature.

And McCabe has openly bucked the White House in a testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee after Comey’s dismissal, signaling in no uncertain terms that he remains loyal to the former director.

Adam Lee, the FBI special agent in charge of the Richmond, Va., office, was also interviewed over the weekend.

The remaining four candidates interviewed over the weekend include former Justice Department official Alice Fisher; Michael Garcia, a former U.S. attorney in Manhattan; Fran Townsend, homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush; and U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson.

After the political maelstrom that has engulfed Comey and McCabe, some former officials are dubious that any sufficiently independent candidate will want to take the job.

“I think it’s going to be very hard to find a good FBI director who is willing to operate under the circumstances that we’ve seen this week,” former CIA Director James Woolsey told CNN’s “Fareed Zarkaria GPS” on Sunday.