WASHINGTON — While Democrats may trot out any number of demands or manoeuvrs to influence the selection of the next director of the FBI, here’s a reality check: Republican President Donald Trump fired James Comey, and he and his party will decide who’s next.
And they’re not wasting time. Trump said Monday the selection process for a nominee for FBI director was “moving rapidly.”
Democrats are irate over Comey’s abrupt ouster, and demanding Trump not nominate a partisan leader. Although they can mount considerable pressure before and during the confirmation process, they don’t control enough votes to influence the outcome. Republicans hold a 52-seat majority in the Senate.
“If they can keep all 52 together, then it won’t matter,” said Michael Gerhardt, a constitutional law professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. If Republicans “start to lose a couple, or two or three look like they’re not on board, that could create more pressure on the majority leader and the president to perhaps do something other than what they were planning on doing.”
The next director will immediately be confronted with oversight of an FBI investigation into possible co-ordination between Russia and the Trump campaign, an inquiry the bureau’s acting head, Andrew McCabe, has called “highly significant.”
The person also will have to win the support of rank-and-file agents angered by the ouster of Comey, who was broadly supported within the FBI. The new director will almost certainly have to work to maintain the bureau’s credibility by asserting political independence in the face of a president known for demanding loyalty from the people he appoints.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein interviewed eight candidates Saturday, including some who were not among the names distributed a day earlier by the White House. The list includes current and former FBI and Justice Department leaders, federal judges and Republicans who have served in Congress.
Among those interviewed was McCabe, though it’s not clear how seriously he’s being considered. It’d be highly unusual for the White House to elevate an FBI agent to the role of director, and McCabe during a Senate hearing last week broke with the White House’s explanations for Comey’s firing and its dismissive characterization of the Russia investigation.
FBI directors have predominantly been drawn from the ranks of prosecutors and judges. Comey, for instance, was a former United States Attorney in Manhattan before being appointed deputy attorney general by George W. Bush. His predecessor, Robert Mueller, was U.S. attorney in San Francisco.
One contender who could prove politically palatable is Michael Garcia, a former U.S. attorney in Manhattan with significant experience in terrorism and public corruption investigations. He was appointed by FIFA in 2012 to investigate World Cup bidding contests, then resigned after he said the global soccer organization had mischaracterized a lengthy investigative report he had produced.
The FBI Agents Association has endorsed former Republican congressman Mike Rogers, an ex-FBI agent who led the House intelligence committee and had collegial relationships with his Democratic counterparts. The association also endorsed him in 2013 before Comey was picked.
Senate Democrats have insisted that Trump should not pick a politician as the next FBI director. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that the choice should be “certainly somebody not of a partisan background, certainly somebody of great experience and certainly somebody of courage.”
Given the partisan uproar over Comey’s firing, Democrats seem unlikely to support any FBI candidate put forward by Trump. But the nominee will require only a simple majority vote in the 100-member Senate, meaning Republicans can use their 52-48 majority to confirm the next director without needing Democratic votes.
Democrats are demanding appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election and ties to Trump’s campaign, and have discussed trying to slow down the confirmation process or other business of the Senate as a way of drawing attention to the demand.
Senate rules requiring unanimous consent or 60-vote thresholds on various procedural or legislative steps give Democrats the ability to slow the Senate to a crawl and delay committee hearings.
Given the Republicans’ narrow Senate majority, the larger consideration for the White House is that some GOP senators also insist on a non-partisan choice as the next FBI director.
GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said on “Meet the Press” that Trump has is obligated “to pick somebody beyond reproach outside the political lane.” Graham said under the circumstances he wouldn’t be able to support his colleague Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican, who is under consideration.
Some House Republicans, who technically have no role in the pick, have spoken out about the need for non-partisanship and independence.
“The FBI is America’s pre-eminent law enforcement agency. As such, it needs to be led by a person of unquestioned character and completely divorced from partisan politics,” GOP Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma wrote in an opinion column circulated Monday.
House Democrats are weighing their own steps related to the firing. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is asking House Speaker Paul Ryan to join in a call for Rosenstein to brief House members, as he will do for senators Thursday. Democrats will also try to use a procedural manoeuvr to force a vote on legislation calling for an independent commission to investigate Russian election interference, although they’re unlikely to prevail.
Eric Tucker And Erica Werner, The Associated Press