Donald Trump wants his next FBI director to be a figure who will pass the test of loyalty and malleability that James Comey failed, which rules out most competent and professional law-enforcement veterans. But Trump (and his Senate GOP allies) also needs that figure to have at least the veneer of independence, which rules out a Rudy Giuliani or an Eric Trump. The two demands are in tension, and the narrow field of candidates who can pass both tests has rocketed Joe Lieberman to the top of the list of reported contenders.
Democratic senators have focused on Lieberman’s lack of experience in either law enforcement or management. His age (75 years old, starting an expected ten-year term) and work at a law firm that represents Trump have also come into play. All these amount to significant, plausibly even disqualifying, drawbacks. The obvious question is why Trump would want to select an old politician with a dearth of relevant qualifications for the position. The answer is that Lieberman has demonstrated what, from Trump’s standpoint, seems to be an ideal temperament for the job.
Throughout his career, Lieberman was known for his chumminess and aversion to partisan conflict. During the middle of the Bush administration, he took a turn to the right — slowly at first, and then accelerating. His unrelenting defense of the Iraq war, not only at the outset but through the bungled occupation, when most Democrats who had supported the invasion acknowledged error, made him the target of a liberal primary challenge in 2006. Lieberman lost his primary and ran an independent campaign. In 2008, he endorsed John McCain for president. Lieberman’s speech at the Republican National Convention that summer dismissed Barack Obama as too partisan and too unprepared to take office, while heartily endorsing Sarah Palin as well qualified and eager to reach across the aisle. Palin, he said, “reached across party lines to get things done. The truth is, she is a leader we can count on …”
That analysis has not worn well with time. But it indicated an anger with liberals, and a comfort with the right, that has increasingly defined Lieberman’s career since then. While Democrats eagerly welcomed him back in 2009 — and he mostly cooperated with Obama’s domestic agenda — Lieberman has continued his rightward trajectory. Tellingly, he has embraced positions that make even many Republicans uncomfortable. Lieberman attacked the construction of a Muslim cultural center in lower Manhattan that became the subject of right-wing conspiracy theories. He railed against the nuclear deal with Iran, which Republican senators like Bob Corker tried to gently compromise over.
And while the Republican Establishment greeted Trump with almost uniform private revulsion, with a handful of Republicans bold enough to split from him publicly, Lieberman has steered clear of frontal criticism. He praised Michael Flynn’s team of conspiracy theorists, who even other members of the Trump administration considered dangerous. He testified on behalf of lightweight, evidence-discarding Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at her confirmation hearing. DeVos was ultimately opposed by every Democratic senator, along with two Republicans.
Lieberman is famous for his career in Democratic politics — a party he has since left to reregister as an independent — which insulates him from charges of Republican partisanship. But his trajectory provides a better indicator of his current mind than does his overall body of work. The 75-year-old Lieberman is a politician deeply comfortable with elements of the Republican Party at which even many Republicans blanch.
Under a normal president, Lieberman might be a fairly harmless figure. But the position of FBI director is a vital guardrail against democratic backsliding — at the moment, it is the most vital one. Trump labored extensively to persuade the last FBI head to abandon his neutrality and act like a member of Trump’s team, who would take the president’s cues about who to prosecute and who to leave alone. The Comey episode provides a guide to the qualities Trump is looking for in Comey’s successor. In Lieberman he has found his patsy.