This weekend, the Attorney General began interviewing candidates to replace FBI Director James Comey—who was fired last week by President Donald Trump.
Because whomever replaces Comey at the agency will inherit the investigation into Russian interference in 2016 election, which includes allegations of possible coordination between Trump associates and Russian interests, lawmakers in both parties have called for the nomination of a non-partisan, independent figure to lead the FBI.
Yet some top candidates for the job are anything but. Of the nearly dozen people under serious consideration for the job, at least two have taken numerous public stands about the investigations at the heart of Comey’s ouster: Russian interference in American democracy, and the Justice Department’s handling of Hillary Clinton’s e-mails. While some of the candidates have repeatedly criticized Trump and called for a robust Russia probe, others have downplayed the documented foreign interference and rallied to the defense of the man they would be charged with investigating.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) is perhaps the most partisan figure on the FBI director shortlist.
The Senate’s Republican majority whip endorsed Trump back in May, and never publicly broke from him, even during the wave of defections following the release of the infamous Access Hollywood tape.
Cornyn, a former Texas attorney general, sits on the two committees that have jurisdiction over the FBI and the Russia investigation—the Judiciary and Intelligence committees. But he has repeatedly used those posts to dismiss concerns about Russian hacking, attack former Obama administration officials, and declare point-blank that there was no collusion with Trump or his associates—despite an ongoing investigation into that question.
“This is not anything new,” Cornyn said of Russian efforts to help Trump win the presidency, in a Judiciary Committee hearing last week.
In that hearing, former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified about her discovery that Trump’s now-fired national security advisor Mike Flynn was compromised by the Russians and vulnerable to blackmail. Instead of asking her anything about this, Cornyn used his allotted question time to berate her for refusing to defend Trump’s travel ban—a policy that has since been deemed unconstitutional by several federal courts.
A week earlier, when Comey testified before the Judiciary Committee, Cornyn used his turn not to grill Comey on the ongoing inquiry into President Trump’s associates, but to complain about a recent speech by Hillary Clinton reflecting on the 2016 election.
“I’m disappointed to see that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in the news yesterday, essentially blaming you and blaming everything other than herself for her loss on November 8,” Cornyn said.
Cornyn then told Comey he supported his controversial decision to publicly reopen the investigation into Clinton’s e-mails mere weeks before Election Day. “You did the best you could in light of the situation that you were presented with,” he said.
The selection of Cornyn would set up the bizarre scenario of Trump choosing someone to replace Comey who was openly supportive of Comey’s handling of the Clinton email probe—even though the White House initially cited Comey’s conduct in that probe as the basis for Trump’s decision to fire him.
In numerous interviews over the past few months, Cornyn has repeatedly asserted that there is no evidence of Trump’s administration colluding with the Russian government, despite the fact that the House, Senate, and FBI are still in the early stages of investigating this issue. In some instances, Cornyn misquoted other officials and former officials when asserting this points.
He told CNN in March: “What we’ve heard from the director of the National Intelligence is that there’s no evidence of collusion.”
The anchor corrected him: “Just to be clear, James Clapper said that he knew of no collusion before January 20th. He couldn’t be certain after January 20th.”
After Trump fired Comey, sending shockwaves across D.C. and the nation, Cornyn shrugged off the widespread outrage and concern.
“Nothing will change by virtue of Director Comey’s termination,” he told Fox News.
In a floor speech and on Twitter, Cornyn also echoed Trump’s line that the Democrats protesting Comey’s firing are hypocritical because they previously criticized his judgement in the Clinton e-mail case.
Ds were against Comey before they were for him.
— JohnCornyn (@JohnCornyn) May 10, 2017
In other interviews the morning after the news broke, he called the allegation that Trump had fired Comey to put the kibosh on the FBI’s investigation into ties between his campaign and Russia “a phony narrative,” saying, “I don’t believe there’s any evidence.”
Trump confirmed in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt that he had, in fact, fired Comey for that reason.
“When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story,” Trump said.
As Cornyn advances to the interview stage of the vetting process, even some of his own Republican colleagues are calling him too partisan for the job.
“John Cornyn is a wonderful man,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told NBC’s Meet The Press on Sunday. “Under normal circumstances, he would be a superb choice to be FBI director. But these are not normal circumstances.”
“I think it’s now time to pick someone who 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,” Graham said.
Mike Rogers, another leading candidate in the running to replace Comey, is a former FBI agent and Republican congressman from Michigan – and served as a national security adviser to the Trump transition team.
Rogers’ stint with the transition team was brief. He was ousted shortly after Flynn came onboard. Flynn went on to become Trump’s first national security adviser, until he was fired for allegedly lying to the vice president about his communications with the Russian ambassador.
Rogers remains largely supportive of Trump’s agenda, but he has not been shy about criticizing the President’s public comments.
“He just put another quarter in the conspiracy parking meter,” Rogers said on CNN, where he now serves as a national security analyst, after Trump accused former President Barack Obama of wiretapping him.
“The only winner in this whole thing has been Vladimir Putin. Everyone — the Democrats are saying that he stole an election, and the president of the United States is saying, ‘Don’t worry about it, he’s a pretty good guy.’ If I were Vladimir Putin, I’d be feeling pretty good right about now,” Rogers said.
Rogers has also offered forceful warnings about the Kremlin’s meddling in U.S. politics, declaring at the Heritage Foundation last fall that “the Russians are certainly on the march.” He later called for the FBI to “have the first run” at getting to the bottom of Russia’s election interference, and cautioned against granting immunity to ousted national security adviser Mike Flynn.
Like Comey, Rogers has faced criticism from both sides of the aisle. Republicans piled on Rogers for issuing a 2014 bipartisan report, during his tenure as head of the House Intelligence Committee, that cleared Clinton of wrongdoing in the Benghazi attack.
Rogers also took fire from the left earlier this year for weighing in on that committee’s probe into Russia meddling. He applauded Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) for recusing himself from the probe for his overly close ties to the Trump administration, but said that Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the top Democrat on that committee, was “equally to blame for the Committee’s loss of focus.”
Rogers has earned the endorsement of the FBI Agents Association, who praised his experience in the bureau and “nonpartisan and collaborative manner” of handling intelligence issues in Congress. He declined to criticize Comey’s tenure, saying only that it was “absolutely critical” that “the FBI gets back on its feet” as soon as possible.
George W. Bush Homeland Security Advisor-turned-CBS national security analyst Fran Townsend has not been directly involved, like Cornyn and Rogers, with the ongoing investigations or with the Trump campaign or his administration.
She has commented publicly on various aspects of the issues under scrutiny, saying at one point that Comey made “mistakes” by publicly discussing the FBI probe into Clinton’s emails.
His dismissal, Townsend said, was the “consequence” of violating Justice Department guidelines about how you handle investigations and public pronouncements.”
Calling the timing of his firing “unfortunate,” she said the FBI would proceed with its investigation into Russia regardless of who was at the helm.
“Would we have been asking this question if the president had dismissed him on day one?” Townsend said. “I think from the administration’s point of view, they gave him the chance to kind of try and right the ship—that is, the FBI that was in turmoil after the Clinton email investigation was concluded—and he hasn’t done that. So I think the timing of it is what raises people’s concern.”
Townsend has called for a clear separation between the White House and ongoing investigations into Russia, pondering on Twitter whether Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Trump discussed the probe before Sessions recused himself from it in March.
— Frances Townsend (@FranTownsend) March 6, 2017
— Frances Townsend (@FranTownsend) March 6, 2017
Her prospects for securing the role may be tempered by her reluctance to jump aboard the Trump train. Townsend was one of 50 conservative national security experts to sign an open letter labeling Trump unfit for office during the campaign, and she warned that his proposed Muslim ban would “alienate our Muslim friends.”
Like many #NeverTrumpers, Townsend came around to Trump after he won the election, saying conservatives “need to support” the president and calling it a “privilege” to meet with him in person during the transition.