- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 21, 2017

Among the most pressing items on President Trump’s to-do list when he returns to Washington next week from his first trip overseas will be the task of selecting an FBI director to replace the agency’s ousted leader, James B. Comey.

Former Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a onetime Democratic Party vice presidential nominee, is considered to be among the front-runners for the position — an unusual choice to lead the nation’s premier law enforcement agency and one that breaks with tradition that the FBI head have experience within the agency or be chosen from among the nation’s federal prosecutors or judges.

Though devoid of any law enforcement experience, Mr. Lieberman has some obvious advantages for Mr. Trump, who is almost certainly looking to avoid a bruising confirmation battle in the Senate over the high-profile vacancy.

A Democrat-turned-independent who represented Connecticut for four terms in the upper chamber of Congress, Mr. Lieberman is well respected among lawmakers — perhaps more so among Republicans than his former Democratic colleagues due in part to his hawkish position on international relations.

Mr. Lieberman crossed the aisle to support Republican presidential candidate John McCain in 2008 over Barack Obama and spoke at that year’s Republican National Convention. While he voted for Hillary Clinton last year, he openly flirted with the prospect of endorsing Mr. Trump in November’s election and publicly supported some of Mr. Trump’s controversial nominees — including Jeff Sessions for attorney general, Betsy DeVos for education secretary and David Friedman for U.S. ambassador to Israel. He has also expressed qualified support for some of Mr. Trump’s positions relating to immigration and the Iran nuclear deal.

“Lieberman would be a great choice. I’ve talked to Joe — I think he’s interested in the job. He’s a pillar of virtue. He’s a guy that all of us know and respect,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who leads a Judiciary subcommittee investigating ties between Russian interests and the Trump team. “Bottom line is, if the president picked Joe Lieberman, he’d be doing the country a good service.”

Mr. Trump’s dismissal of Mr. Comey, who was just four years into a 10-year term, comes amid the ongoing investigation into whether Trump campaign associates played a role in Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election. The president’s own comments linking his dissatisfaction with Mr. Comey to the zealous pursuit of the Russia probe have only heightened Democrats’ concern about the selection.

Democrats have largely stopped short of directly criticizing a possible Lieberman nomination, but some have made clear that he will not get a free pass.

Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent and former candidate for the Democrats’ presidential nomination, issued a statement emphasizing that the next FBI director must secure bipartisan support “in this difficult moment in American history” and not be perceived as someone representing the interests of the Trump administration.

“Unfortunately, Joe Lieberman does not fit that description,” he said. “Sen. Lieberman’s political history, and his extreme views on a number of issues, would make him a very contentious and divisive nominee.”

Other Democrats have expressed more guarded concerns, highlighting qualifications they believe are needed for the post, which don’t necessarily align with Mr. Lieberman’s experience.

“I believe, in general, the nominee for FBI director ought to be someone with the background and expertise and experience in criminal justice, preferably a prosecutor, and ought to have no political connections or ties,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who represented Connecticut in the Senate alongside Mr. Lieberman for two years.

Throughout much of the history of the FBI, the chief concern in the selection of a director has been nominating someone of high stature who “would be recognized as a qualified and independent official because of the power of the bureau,” said Athan Theoharis, professor emeritus at Marquette University and an expert on the FBI’s history.

But the end of J. Edgar Hoover’s nearly half-century term leading the FBI in 1972 — coupled with revelations about U.S. spy agencies’ intelligence activities uncovered by the post-Watergate Church and Pike committees — added to concerns about the selection of the bureau’s director.

“That raised the abuse-of-power issue and not simply the independence issue,” Mr. Theoharis said.

In response, lawmakers chose to limit FBI directors to 10-year terms and formed the Senate and House intelligence committees to oversee intelligence activities.

Mr. Trump met at the White House last week with four potential finalists for the FBI position — Mr. Lieberman, former Republican Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, FBI acting Director Andrew McCabe, and former top FBI official Richard McFeely, who has since reportedly withdrawn his name from consideration.

Several others who had met earlier with Mr. Sessions have also withdrawn, including Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, GOP Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, former DOJ official Alice Fisher and Judge Michael Garcia of the New York Court of Appeals.

As the field of candidates narrows, additional vetting will take place behind the scenes to ensure there aren’t any surprises in a candidate’s background that could derail their nomination, said Raymond Batvinis, a professor of history at George Washington University and a former FBI agent.

“The last thing they want to have to do is pull it, because it’s embarrassing to the nominee and very embarrassing to the administration,” he said, noting that of six directors confirmed since Hoover’s death, no one formally nominated for the post has been rejected or withdrawn.

While nominees are generally vetted and agreed upon by the president and the attorney general and undergo a thorough background check, lawmakers will be looking to ensure any nominee has sufficient independence from the president given the ongoing Russia probe.

“The next one will have a microscope up his or her rear end, not to be crude, but this next one is going to be a hot potato after the loss of Comey,” Mr. Batvinis said. “They will have to have a moral compass and an element of political astuteness to be able to navigate the shark-infested waters of Washington.”

• David Sherfinski contributed to this report.

• Andrea Noble can be reached at anoble@washingtontimes.com.

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