‘Wrong, wrong, wrong’: An expert assessment of Joe Lieberman as FBI Director

“Why in the name of all the saints and stars would you appoint a politician to a 10-year statutory term in a post that is supposed to be above politics?”

Joe Lieberman leaving the White House on Wednesday after meeting with President Donald Trump. CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Joe Lieberman leaving the White House on Wednesday after meeting with President Donald Trump. CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Just 10 days after he fired James Comey as Director of the FBI, Donald Trump reportedly views former Senator Joe Lieberman as the frontrunner to replace the man he fired for investigating Russia’s influence in the 2016 election too vigorously.

Lieberman would be a concerning choice. He would break decades of precedent that FBI directors should come from the criminal justice realm. He holds Bill of Rights protections for American citizens in low regard. And his late-career embrace of the American political right — complete with a move into Trump’s own professional locker room after leaving the Senate — would make for a polarizing and potentially caustic tenure at the embattled domestic security agency.

Lieberman has been a professional politician almost his entire adult life. He was just 28 when he first won a state senate seat in Connecticut. After a decade in that legislature and several more years as state Attorney General, he won a U.S. Senate seat there in 1988. He held that office for the next quarter-century.

No professional politician — let alone a career-long one — has ever run the FBI. That is by design, according to Tim Weiner, a veteran investigative reporter and the author of multiple lengthy histories of government agencies and figures including the FBI and the CIA.

“No politicians!”

“I prefer facts to opinions, but I have a strong opinion on this: No politicians!” Weiner told ThinkProgress. “Republican, Democrat, Socialist, Farm Labor Democrat or whatever that party in Minnesota is — no politicians, nope, uh-uh.”

“The constituency of the FBI director is the law and the constitution of the United States.”

With the FBI directorship suddenly politicized by Trump’s actions, though, the next director will have to balance an unusually intense set of contrasting views and priorities within the government. Could someone with decades of experience in the art of politics therefore be right for our times?

“With all due respect, that is a very Washington thing to say,” said Weiner, whose book Enemies tracks the history of the agency from initial director J. Edgar Hoover through the modern era.

“The constituency of the FBI director is the law and the constitution of the United States. The whole point of the 10-year statutory term that was instituted after Hoover died was to make the position that platonic ideal: Something that’s above politics,” he said.

“Now, why in the name of all the saints and stars would you appoint a politician to a 10-year statutory term in a post that is supposed to be above politics? That is wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.”

Lieberman’s Trump ties

After finally retiring from the Senate in January 2013, Lieberman took a large if unintentional step into Trump’s inner circle. The former senator returned to private law practice at the corporate defense firm Kasowitz Benson Torres as senior counsel.

Marc Kasowitz, a founding partner at the firm, has been Trump’s go-to legal attack dog for decades, as the Washington Post detailed last fall. Lieberman’s now-boss has played an especially large role in Trump’s affairs when they pertain to conflicts with the media.

Lieberman’s time with the lawyer Trump pays to quash unflattering media attention puts an extra twist on his potential elevation to the head table of American law enforcement today.

“No politician has ever been a director. That is disqualifying.”

The only reason the FBI job is vacant at all is because Trump became fed up with the agency’s investigation of his campaign’s interactions with Russian interests. The White House initially pretended Trump only fired Comey on a senior DOJ official’s recommendation, but has since acknowledged the president had already made up his mind to ditch Comey. The DOJ official, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, now says that he knew Trump’s mind was made up when he sat down to craft the memo containing a non-Russia rationale for firing Comey.

The next director of the FBI, then, will be stepping into a position in crisis. The FBI Director is supposed to be above politics, as Weiner said. Trump seems to expect that the job involves doing him favors.

Hostility to basic civil liberties

The conflict between Trump’s view that executive branch leaders owe him personal loyalty and the institutional needs of the country casts its own historically unique shadows across this new hiring process. But Lieberman’s political career is full of evidence he would be a dangerous pick to head the domestic security service even under a more normal presidency.

Lieberman is very fond of spying on Americans — and not just in the post-9/11 context. Lieberman pushed to give local police authority to wiretap without seeking a warrant as far back as 1995. Years later, when President George W. Bush had drastically expanded the National Security Agency’s listening capabilities and turned the U.S. informational spying apparatus on his own people, Lieberman emerged as a key Democrat ally to an embattled Republican White House. He called civil liberties concerns about the Bush programs “petty partisan fighting.”

The Bush wiretapping case is another Lieberman resume detail with awkward implications for Trump today. The story contains vague echoes of Trump’s modern, and more personal, conflict with the FBI. When the extent of Bush’s warrantless surveillance of Americans became clear to government insiders, then-FBI Director Robert Mueller and then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey stood athwart the White House’s push to scrap the Bill of Rights. With Attorney General John Ashcroft briefly hospitalized for gall bladder surgery, Bush sent officials to his bedside to seek the incapacitated man’s signature on documents extending the surveillance system’s authorization.

Comey and Mueller got there first, prevented the signing, and then prevailed on Bush to either bring the program back into line with the law or accept their resignations.

“That’s a pretty pivotal thing, when you look the president in the eye and say no,” Weiner said. “That takes integrity. That takes a measure of bravery.”

Lieberman was not part of that backstage drama, which Bush has written caused him to think of the Watergate-era “Saturday Night Massacre” that helped accelerate President Richard Nixon’s downfall. But he was on the opposite side of the argument to Comey and Mueller — two men who stood on principle over politics that day in 2004, and who today are key figures in the ongoing investigation of Trump’s Russian entanglements.

In the debate over a 2007 bill that gave Congressional imprimatur to a slightly modified version of Bush’s surveillance program, Lieberman once again treated the kinds of principled constitutional objections Comey, Mueller, and most civil libertarians raised as mere foibles to be cast aside in the face of the terrorist threat.

We’re at war. The enemy wants to attack us. This is not the time to strive for legislative perfection,” Lieberman, one of 17 Democrats to vote for the bill, said at the time.

A divisive, caustic figure

Lieberman’s sympathy for neoconservative ideas throughout Bush’s “Global War on Terror” sullied his reputation among Democrats, who nominated him as Vice President in 2000. He set what was left of that reputation on fire over his final six years in Washington.

Lieberman lost the Democratic primary in Connecticut to Ned Lamont in 2006, then defied primary voters’ will by staying in the race and winning as an independent. By 2008, he was endorsing Sen. John McCain for the White House over then-Sen. Barack Obama. In 2009, he was a key figure in purging the “public option” from Obama’s health care plans — threatening to lead a filibuster against Obamacare unless Democrats abandoned the provision progressive organizers had rallied around.

By last summer, when some self-described #NeverTrump conservatives were casting about for someone to mount a third-party bid, the Weekly Standard published an anonymous plea for Lieberman to take up the conservative ideological mantle.

Lieberman today is a figure estranged from the Democratic party, both its grassroots and its senior members. Yet some Republican senators predicted he would sail through confirmation if Trump nominated him to fill Comey’s empty chair.

“Joe Lieberman is probably the only person that could get 100 votes in the Senate,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said Thursday.

Yet Senate Democrats put that pipe dream to rest late Thursday, telling Politico none would support his nomination. Some cited the political grudges Lieberman engendered in the later years of his career. But the primary objections mirror Weiner’s warnings about the demands of the job and the need to keep the FBI above politics.

“[A]ll Democratic senators interviewed for this story said the former Connecticut senator lacks the kind of experience needed for the post,” Politico reported.

Lieberman has spent no time in law enforcement. He spent 42 years gladhanding donors, navigating legislative debates, and kissing babies.

“The republic is at stake,” Weiner said. “Why would you want a politician in charge of the FBI? No politician has ever been a director. That is disqualifying.”