Now that James Comey has unexpectedly entered into retirement as FBI Director, who will take his place? Given all of the drama and hyperbole in Washington DC, perhaps a better question would be who’d want to replace him? Comey made himself a lightning rod for charges of politicization in law enforcement from both sides of the aisle over his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, a probe that may still be ongoing. The replacement would also find him/herself with an even bigger political hot potato in the probe into Russian influence in the last election, whose outcome is guaranteed to outrage half or more of all occupants on Capitol Hill.
Needless to say, the answer to this question will be equal parts fascinating and amusing. Fox’s Griff Jenkins tells Fox & Friends that the replacement would have to be “someone that the White House wants to restore the confidence and bring credibility back to the FBI.” And the names Jenkins offers for that mission are … three men who campaigned for Trump and a key supporter of New York City’s stop-and-frisk program, none of whom have FBI experience:
Andrew McCabe now acting FBI Director as names swirl about possible Comey replacements pic.twitter.com/g2XoGQVyxp
— FOX & friends (@foxandfriends) May 10, 2017
Bear in mind that this position requires Senate confirmation, which means Donald Trump has to assure at least 51 Senators that he’s not politicizing the FBI with a crony appointment. Republicans could confirm a nominee on their own, but the fallout from Comey’s firing makes it clear that enough Senate Republicans are skeptical enough of Trump’s motives to make it an issue. That would all but eliminate Chris Christie and David Clarke from consideration, and probably Trey Gowdy too, even though he was a less-visible supporter of Trump in the general election. Gowdy’s tough focus on Hillary Clinton in the Benghazi select committee investigation will not give him the necessary detachment to “bring credibility back to the FBI,” at least perception-wise. Rudy Giuliani is both too old and too passionate a supporter of Trump to pass muster, either.
Ray Kelly might make for an interesting choice, in part because he worked for the Clinton administration, as CNN reminds us:
The New York Times reported in 1993, after Kelly first severed as commissioner of the NYPD after the World Trade Center bombing, that the former police cadet “has been mentioned as a possible replacement” for the FBI under then-President Bill Clinton.
Kelly didn’t become FBI director. That job went to Louis Freeh.
But the fact he was considered by Clinton, a Democrat, gets to one of Kelly’s strongest suits: Possible bipartisan support.
Kelly held two jobs under Clinton: Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence at Treasury and Commissioner of the United States Customs service.
However, Kelly is also 75 years old, which makes his suitability for a ten-year term rather questionable. (Giuliani’s three years younger than Kelly, but at 72 would also seem long in the tooth.) Kelly has been a bit too vocal in support of Trump on the media circuit to offer a credibly independent voice, plus the stop-and-frisk issue would become yet another lightning rod in what will already be a tense confirmation environment. Kelly would make a good temporary fill-in for a longer search, but that leads us to …
CNN also includes Andrew McCabe on its list of potential replacements. McCabe became acting director yesterday after Comey’s firing, and he has a long track record at the FBI to recommend him. However, his wife’s run for public office tied the two of them to Terry McAuliffe directly, and Hillary Clinton indirectly, a point which Republicans raised in the e-mail investigation. The Department of Justice Inspector General opened an investigation into both Comey and McCabe in January over their handling of the Hillary investigation, which has not yet been resolved, and that probe explicitly will cover whether McCabe should have recused himself. Picking McCabe might backfire in restoring confidence in the FBI’s impartiality, let alone its credibility.
The CNN list also includes John Pistole, who worked in both the Bush and Obama administrations, and who has 26 years in the FBI. He has criticized some Trump policies, but apparently kept his 2016 preferences to himself. Of all the names that have so far floated to the top in the media, Pistole seems like the most reasonable and least political of them all.
There is one more name that has not come up yet: Patrick Fitzgerald. The former US Attorney is probably best known for his probe into the Valerie Plame leak and his prosecution of “Scooter” Libby for obstruction of justice, but he has a track record which includes investigations and convictions of Democrats as well, including then-governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois. He’s currently on the Board of Trustees for the University of Illinois (an appointment from Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn), but only 56 years old. If Pistole is a candidate of continuity, Fitzgerald would be an outsider and reformer, but with a significant amount of non-partisan credibility. Either choice would be defensible, but if Trump wants to shake up official Washington — and demonstrate some personal courage — Fitzgerald might be the better choice.
That assumes, of course, that he’d take the job, or that Pistole would either. We might need a draft, or a reality show, to settle the matter. Let’s see if anyone signs up for “Dancing With the Senate,” and then go from there.
Update: Glenn Kessler reminded me on Twitter that Fitzgerald is a close friend of Comey, and may not be terribly motivated to replace him:
Pat is a very close friend of Comey, by the way. Comey appointed him to run the Libby case.
— Glenn Kessler (@GlennKesslerWP) May 10, 2017
One reader pointed out that Kelly Ayotte has also emerged as a potential candidate:
So far, most of the speculative online lists of successors to James Comey haven’t included Ayotte’s name, but she was brought up as a possibility on Fox News and several other TV news outlets on Wednesday morning.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a long-time ally of Ayotte, told Fox News that he thinks she would be an “excellent choice.” But he quickly added that “there are a lot of good people.”
Ayotte does have a law enforcement background, having served as New Hampshire’s attorney general before joining the U.S. Senate. She has had a complicated relationship with Trump, first backing him and then backing away from him during her re-election campaign last year. But she worked closely with him to help usher Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch through the Senate confirmation process.
Ayotte might find more sympathy with her former Senate Republican colleagues than Giuliani or Christie would, but she might not have enough political distance from Trump for them to get enthusiastic about it. Ayotte served as New Hampshire’s AG for five years, but has no federal law-enforcement experience, and she’d be stepping into a toxic political atmosphere that would challenge a veteran, let alone a relative neophyte. Plus, Ayotte didn’t exactly hold up well to political attacks during the last election, which may have cost her Senate seat. She would make history as the first female FBI director, but only if she could get confirmed, or wanted the headaches at all.