The Justice Department began interviews Wednesday for an interim director of the FBI, with the stakes of the selection heightened by the political mess being inherited by the successor to former Director James B. Comey.
Deputy Director Andrew McCabe is filling the role for now, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions is leading a search to fill the role on a more-lasting basis, even as the Trump administration also looks for a permanent director.
Some high-profile names have already emerged for the permanent nomination, with the list being topped by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who previously served as a U.S. attorney, and former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, a fellow New Yorker who shares Mr. Trump’s tough-on-crime stance.
Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, a law-and-order crusader who was a campaign surrogate for Mr. Trump, and Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, a former federal prosecutor who headed up the House special committee probe of Benghazi, were also mentioned.
Whoever is installed now to head the FBI will inherit the ongoing investigation into potential ties between Trump associates and Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Given those stakes, finding a consensus pick who can restore the faith Mr. Trump says has been lost in the FBI could take some time.
“It is not an easy spot to fill. That’s what Obama found — was that it was difficult to thread the needle with Republicans,” said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law. “Plus, it’s a 10-year commitment.”
Indeed, Mr. Obama got congressional approval to keep then-Director Robert Mueller III on the job two years beyond his 10-year term as the White House searched for the right successor. Mr. Obama eventually settled on Mr. Comey in 2013.
That history makes the pick of the interim director all the more important.
Mr. Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein have already met with four candidates, each of whom has a long history at the bureau, according to department officials.
They were Adam Lee, special agent in charge of the Richmond field office; Michael Anderson, special agent in charge of the Chicago field office; Paul Abbate, the executive assistant director for the bureau’s Criminal, Cyber, Response and Services branch; and William Evanina, the director of the national counterintelligence and security center at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Two of the candidates — Mr. Anderson and Mr. Lee — both have backgrounds in public corruption cases, and both have spent time in an FBI field office where they would have regularly crossed paths with Dana Boente, the acting assistant attorney general for the national security division. Mr. Boente is one of only two U.S. attorneys kept on in the Justice Department by the Trump administration.
Other prospects could be interviewed later this week.
Mr. Trump’s dismissal of Mr. Comey was abrupt, coming just a week after the director appeared before a Senate committee and defended his handling of the probe into Hillary Clinton’s secret email server and handling of classified information.
The president’s letter dismissing Mr. Comey arrived at FBI headquarters as the director was more than 2,000 miles away from the J. Edgar Hoover Building — at a recruiting event in Los Angeles.
The notion that top DOJ leaders are now scurrying to interview candidates for the interim position is striking, Mr. Tobias said.
“They’ve got McCabe right there. What’s the problem?” he said. “He’s the one who knows the agency and has worked at headquarters.”
The fact that a list of other potential candidates exists at all shows DOJ leaders don’t want Mr. McCabe in the position, said Curt Levey, president at the Committee for Justice.
“McCabe is not seen as nonpartisan, so that is the biggest news,” he said.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president has confidence in Mr. McCabe’s ability to serve as an acting director of the agency. Meanwhile, a DOJ official said Mr. McCabe is being considered among the others for the longer-term appointment.
But Mr. McCabe landed in an unfavorable spotlight last year when reports surfaced that his wife, Jill McCabe, collected hundreds of thousands of dollars from organizations overseen by Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Clinton ally, during an unsuccessful 2015 campaign for the Virginia state Senate.
Mr. McCabe was at the time overseeing the FBI’s Washington field office, which was providing the manpower to investigate Mrs. Clinton’s secret email server. He was promoted to the position of deputy director by Mr. Comey in February 2016.
An inspector general is reviewing whether Mr. McCabe should have recused himself from aspects of the Clinton probe.
DOJ officials said to be considered for the interim position, candidates must either already be in the line of succession, hold a Senate-confirmed post somewhere in the administration or be a senior employee somewhere in the Justice Department or its component agencies.
Of the names known to be under consideration for the interim post, each brings significant experience within the bureau.
The candidates for the permanent job, however, are more varied and carry political baggage that could earn objections from Democrats on Capitol Hill.
Mr. Christie has the “Bridgegate” scandal that resulted in the conviction of two Christie allies for misconduct in office; Mr. Kelly was involved in the post-9/11 police surveillance of New York mosques; Mr. Clarke, a staunch opponent of Black Lives Matter, has been accused of allowing mistreatment of inmates in the county jail; and Mr. Gowdy is viewed on the left as a right-wing partisan.
“He certainly should consider someone without political baggage in an effort to try to bring credibility back to the FBI,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “But, in the end, he has got to get someone he feels comfortable with and someone who can also get 51 votes in the United States Senate.”
Mr. Trump is also expected to consider some candidates from inside the Justice Department or FBI for the permanent job.
That list includes Steven H. Cook, a former police officer and federal prosecutor that Mr. Sessions brought aboard to head up an effort to combat violent crime.
Another choice that could be popular among FBI agents is former Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan. He’s a former agent who later served as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
Mr. Rogers’ name popped up in the last search for an FBI director, and he won the endorsement of the FBI Agents Association.