The ouster of FBI Director James B. Comey prompted a flurry of speculation Wednesday about who could be named as his replacement.
Projections for potential candidates included Trump confidantes, Capitol Hill insiders and career investigators. But there were no clear answers about who might fill the post.
The Trump administration, meanwhile, was already interviewing for a new interim director and promised to name a potential permanent director as early as the end of the week. That person would have to be confirmed by the Senate.
President Donald Trump shed little light on the situation in an early morning tweet Wednesday.
“James Comey will be replaced by someone who will do a far better job, bringing back the spirit and prestige of the FBI,” he wrote.
James Comey will be replaced by someone who will do a far better job, bringing back the spirit and prestige of the FBI.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 10, 2017
In the past, the departure of an FBI director has typically been announced well in advance, allowing for months–if not years–of deliberation about who should be the next to lead the agency.
When Comey’s predecessor Robert Mueller was nearing the end of his 10-year term, for example, President Obama signed legislation that gave him an extra two years, until 2013, to accommodate the vetting process for a replacement.
The frenzied activity of the past 24 hours in Washington stands in stark contrast to that process.
“This seems to have come out of the blue,” said James Koukios, a 10-year veteran of the Department of Justice who also served as special council to the FBI director during Mueller’s final years in office. “It almost seems as if they are coming up with a script as they are acting out the play.”
Koukios is now a partner at the Morrison & Foerster law firm.
The Trump administration on Wednesday delegated Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to interview candidates for interim director.
According to a Reuters report, the four candidates they vetted were all FBI officials — Andrew McCabe, acting FBI director; Paul Abbate, assistant FBI director in charge; Michael J. Anderson, special agent in charge of the Chicago division; and Adam Lee, special agent in charge of the Richmond, Virginia, division. McCabe, Comey’s deputy, has been serving in the post since Comey’s departure.
Koukios, the former Department of Justice prosecutor, said that it makes sense that the administration would limit its search for an interim director to internal candidates, because acting directors normally come from within the agency. The choice could also help counter fears about ulterior motives to Comey’s dismissal.
“It says this is not about the FBI or about he leadership writ large,” he said. “The message would be that is about this one person at the FBI, and the one issue, about the competence about the email investigation.”
The next step would be to name a permanent director with “impeccable law enforcement credentials,” who is also seen as bi-partisan or non-partisan, Koukios said.
“Given the circumstances we are in, a lot of people will think it’s a political firing,” he said. Whether it was or wasn’t is beside the point. They should look for someone who would resolve those fears.”
“Obama chose a Republican as FBI director to ensure independence,” he tweeted. “Trump must now choose a Democrat to replace Comey & ask for special counsel.”
Obama chose a Republican as FBI director to ensure independence. Trump must now choose a Democrat to replace Comey & ask for special counsel
— Max Boot (@MaxBoot) May 10, 2017
One pick who could satisfy skeptics about Trump’s motivations could be Ken Wainstein, whose name has appeared at the top of many lists circulated in the media. Wainstein was Mueller’s chief of staff. He also served as first assistant attorney general for national security and later homeland security advisor to former President George W. Bush.
But he might fail one test that has tripped up other Trump nominations: loyalty to the president. Wainstein signed an open letter opposing Trump’s presidential nomination last year.
Others have predicted that the Trump administration will take an opposite tack, choosing a political ally who would squelch the bureau’s investigation into potential collusion between members of his inner circle and the Russian government during the 2016 election.
“If anyone thinks that a new FBI director is going to come in and the agency will just take over and continue their investigation as if this had never happened, that’s not how it works,” longtime New Yorker writer and legal scholar Jeffery Toobin said on CNN. “They will put in a stooge who will shut down this investigation.”
Toobin mentioned former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Both names appeared on top of many short lists circulated Wednesday.
Giuliani swatted down the suggestion he could be in the running for the post, in spite of his mysterious appearance at the Trump International Hotel in Washington late Tuesday night.
“I’m not a candidate for FBI director,” he told reporters with The Atlantic and New York magazine who approached him as he was leaving the hotel bar. “The president’s not gonna ask me and I’m not gonna be FBI director.”
Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke also denied speculation that he was in the running. Clarke’s name has been floated for many positions in the Trump administration. But the frequent Trump surrogate told Fox Business News that he had not been contacted by the White House about the job.
“No, I haven’t, but even if I did, I don’t think I’d tell you,” Clarke said. “Those kind of conversations are confidential, but I stand by and my word is a badge of honor.”
Other names that have been raised included former Rep. Mike Rogers, onetime House Intelligence chairman; Ray Kelly, former New York City police commissioner; and South Carolina GOP Rep. Trey Gowdy, a Trump ally and former Benghazi Committee chairman.