Joe Lieberman, the former Democratic senator from Connecticut with a complicated history with his political party, has emerged as the frontrunner to replace the now-fired James Comey as FBI director, according to a report from Politico’s Josh Dawsey, Kenneth Vogel, and Michael Crowley.
Lieberman lacks the conventional qualifications for an FBI director, never having served as a law enforcement agent or federal prosecutor. He lacks the kind of administrative experience that one normally looks for in an agency chief. At the age of 75, he’s also very much on the old side for a 10-year appointment. But “Trump bonded with Lieberman” at their meeting on Wednesday, according to Politico, and though personal rapport between the president and the FBI director has not traditionally been considered necessary or even desirable, Trump enjoys breaking with tradition.
For the president to fire the FBI director in an effort to stymie an investigation into his associates, and then replace him with an unqualified successor who happens to be an employee of his personal lawyer, seems a wee bit fishy to me; indeed, Politico quotes a senior Democratic aide as saying it “could be an issue for Democrats.” Another issue for Lieberman will be that grassroots progressive activists hate his guts and have for years.
But Lieberman has always been well-liked by his Senate colleagues, and if Trump nominates him, that may be enough to get him confirmed with a decent veneer of bipartisanship even in these turbulent times.
Trying to forecast his actual performance as a potential director seems difficult. For a partisan politician, he certainly has a reputation for nonpartisanship. But his total lack of experience with federal law enforcement and lack of administrative experience, combined with the reality that he would be stepping in to fill the shoes of a well-liked former director who was fired for no good reason, means he would likely struggle to earn the respect of career personnel and run the agency effectively.
Certainly Trump’s decision to run for president shows that he, personally, does not put a lot of stock in the idea that the government should be run by people with relevant experience. Whether that’s worked out in practice as a governing philosophy is another matter.
Liberals hate Joe Lieberman
Lieberman has, on the surface, all the markings of an elder statesman or an eminence grise of the Democratic Party. At the state level, he served as state Senate majority leader and attorney general; he served four terms as a United States senator; and he even secured his party’s vice presidential nomination on the 2000 ticket that won the popular vote but lost the presidency.
In practice, however, liberals hate him and have hated him for a very long time.
He won election to the US Senate in a very odd 1988 race that pitted him against Lowell Weicker, a very liberal Republican. Lieberman prevailed by just 10,000 votes thanks in part to vocal support from conservative Republicans (including, most notably, William F. Buckley Jr.) who appreciated that Lieberman ran to Weicker’s right on foreign policy and national security issues. In office, he operated largely as a centrist Democrat at a time when there were many centrist Democrats, but he did so while holding down a safe seat in a liberal state.
He stood out from the Democratic Party pack in the late 1990s for his scathing assessment of Bill Clinton’s conduct with regard to Monica Lewinsky (he’s going to be really upset when he hears about some of the stuff Donald Trump bragged about doing), though in the end he voted against removing Clinton from office.
Al Gore selected him as vice president in part specifically to help distance himself from Clinton’s scandals, though Gore was defeated while Clinton maintained sky-high popularity ratings. Lieberman played a small and baffling role in damaging his campaign’s own vote-counting efforts during the dispute over the results in Florida.
Lieberman, back in the Senate, then distinguished himself in the George W. Bush era as the most vocal Democratic proponent of invading Iraq. Name recognition gave him in early polling lead in the 2004 Democratic Party primaries, but he cratered as soon as campaigning got underway, leaving behind a race that was primarily noteworthy for his memorable effort to spin a fifth-place finish in the New Hampshire primary as a “three-way split decision for third place.” Lieberman then lost a 2006 primary to Connecticut businessman Ned Lamont but secured reelection by running as an independent.
The GOP did not seriously contest the seat, making Lieberman the de facto Republican nominee, but many establishment Democratic Party politicians backed Lieberman over the official Democrat. At the time, it was common for Democratic leaders to scold their base over its allegedly irrational dislike of Lieberman, arguing that “he’s with us on everything except the war.”
Having won reelection, Lieberman proceeded to endorse John McCain for president in 2008 and barnstormed the country with him.
Joe Lieberman killed the Medicare buy-in
After McCain lost in a landslide, Lieberman was welcomed back by the Democratic Senate caucus — which was desperate to scrounge together 60 votes for Obama’s legislative initiatives — with open arms, emerging as one of several centrist Democratic senators who opposed the idea of including a “public option” in the Affordable Care Act.
He truly stood out, however, late in the legislative game, when it appeared that Harry Reid had forged consensus in his caucus around the idea of expanding Medicare by allowing people over the age of 55 to buy into the program. Then Lieberman happened.
To quote Ezra Klein’s summary of the situation from December 2009, both the substance and the process around this decision further angered progressives. Lieberman announced his opposition to the idea very late in the game, reversing positions he had long held.
Subsequent reporting appeared to confirm Klein’s suspicion, that it was liberal members’ enthusiasm for the idea that soured him on it.
Had the Medicare buy-in happened, the remaining risk pool in Affordable Care Act marketplaces would have been younger and healthier, which would have led to lower premiums and probably more sign-ups. That higher number of sign-ups would, in turn, have served to reduce risk and lower premiums, leading to a virtuous cycle that could have greatly enhanced marketplace stability relative to the status quo.
Lieberman lacks normal FBI qualifications
Presidents have not, historically, nominated current or former elected officials for the FBI director role, seeing it as a somewhat apolitical position. What’s more, if a politician ever were to serve in the job, one normally would have thought it would be a politician with some unique relevant credentials, like former Rep. Mike Rogers, who used to be an FBI agent.
Review the biographies of all six post-Hoover FBI directors and a pretty clear pattern emerges:
- Before Comey was FBI director, he was deputy attorney general, and before that he was a US attorney.
- The previous FBI director, Robert Mueller, was a former deputy attorney general and former US attorney.
- Louis Freeh was a former FBI agent, former assistant US attorney, and former federal judge.
- William Sessions was a former US attorney and former federal judge.
- William Webster was a former US attorney and former federal judge.
- Clarence Kelly was a career FBI agent.
Lieberman has never worked for the FBI, has never been a federal judge or a federal prosecutor, and has never worked for the Department of Justice. He has no history at all with federal law enforcement. Appointing him would be an enormous break with tradition.
Lieberman just might be what Trump needs
All that said, if Trump is looking for an FBI director who can secure enough Democratic Party voters to seem a bit bipartisan, Lieberman might be a good choice.
Lieberman has always been well-liked by his Democratic Party colleagues, who have repeatedly forgiven him for attacking his own party’s president at a moment of weakness, sabotaging his own presidential ticket’s recount strategy, running against the Democratic Party’s nominee in a Senate race, and campaigning against the Democratic Party’s nominee in a presidential race.
During the health care debate, several Democrats were quietly grateful to Lieberman for spiking the Medicare expansion — agreeing to serve as the fall guy who would take the hit from liberals even while they quietly agreed with him on the merits.
So if he’s nominated, during his confirmation, two or three old-guard Lieberman fans from blue states (someone like a Dianne Feinstein or a Pat Leahy) could give cover to a handful of red-state Democrats who need to find some things to back Trump on (Joe Manchin, Joe Donnelly, Heidi Heitkamp, and so on), which together could add up to a solid bipartisan majority.
It would drive liberals batty, of course, and the ability to troll the Democratic base and prompt infighting is probably part of the appeal to Trump. And getting yelled at by the left for a few weeks might help awaken Lieberman’s penchant for annoying liberals — a penchant that would be very helpful to a Trump administration looking to slow-walk investigations.