It’s been almost a month since President Trump fired James B. Comey on May 9, leaving the FBI without a director. Under normal circumstances, a president planning to fire the head of the nation’s top law-enforcement agency might do so only once he had a successor lined up. (The only other time an FBI director was fired, President Bill Clinton announced his replacement the next day.) Trump didn’t do that, pledging instead that a new director would be identified quickly. Shortly before he left on his overseas trip last month, he promised that he was “very close” to picking a new director. That was almost three weeks ago.
There have been a number of people who were identified as being in the running to get the job. And of that group, most have publicly withdrawn their names from contention.
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) withdrew from consideration May 15.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) withdrew May 16.
Former FBI official Richard McFeely withdrew May 20.
Former Connecticut senator Joseph I. Lieberman withdrew May 25.
Why would so many people decline the chance to hold such a prestigious position? Well, it’s worth remembering the rest of the timeline, including reports on May 11 and 18 about Trump allegedly trying to improperly influence Comey on the investigation into Russian election interference. The FBI director gig is not a simple one — especially with a president who’s heavily focused on the outcome of one particular investigation.
Those four withdrawals are hardly the only ones the Trump administration has seen. Three of Trump’s picks to head the Army and Navy have withdrawn from consideration, Vincent Viola (Army), Philip Bilden (Navy) and Mark Green (Army). Both David Petraeus and Robert Harward withdrew from contention to replace Michael Flynn as national security adviser. Trump’s first pick to run the Labor Department withdrew. His pick for deputy treasury secretary withdrew, as did his pick for deputy commerce secretary. Trump’s first pick to run the Office of Drug Control Policy, Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.), withdrew. Monica Crowley, his pick for National Security Council spokesperson, withdrew. A lawyer on the shortlist for solicitor general withdrew.
Even Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway’s husband, George, withdrew from consideration for a top job with the Justice Department. Why? His response to Trump’s tweets about the entry ban Monday offer some hint. In a series of tweets, George Conway defended his criticism of Trump’s comments about the travel ban earlier that day.
“Every sensible lawyer in [the White House Counsel’s Office] and every political appointee at [the Department of Justice] [would] agree with me (as some have already told me),” he wrote. “The [point] cannot be stressed enough that tweets on legal matters seriously undermine Admin agenda and POTUS — and those who support him, as I do, need to reinforce that [point] and not be shy about it.”
We don’t know that Trump’s itchy Twitter finger is why Conway chose not to work for the administration, but it’s safe to assume that Conway’s concerns about Trump’s behavior didn’t begin at 9 a.m. Monday.
Not all of those who withdrew from administration positions did so out of concern over the behavior of the president — some dropped out due to scandal or the requirement to eliminate financial conflicts. For others, it’s pretty safe to assume that the direct reason was Trump.
Yahoo News reported Tuesday that four different major law firms declined to represent Trump in the investigations into his campaign’s possible relationship with Russian actors during the 2016 campaign.
Reporter Michael Isikoff explains a key reason for the firms’ decisions:
“[A] consistent theme, the sources said, was the concern about whether the president would accept the advice of his lawyers and refrain from public statements and tweets that have consistently undercut his position.”
Another factor cited was that representing Trump would “kill recruitment” for the firms — that, in other words, an association with Trump would hurt their bottom lines.
For individuals considering positions with the administration, there’s another risk. Trump insists upon loyalty from his workers (including, according to a New York Times report, from Comey) but is not always generous with returning the favor. He has publicly disparaged or undercut advisers and staffers including Stephen K. Bannon, H.R. McMaster, Sean Spicer, Rod J. Rosenstein and Vice President Pence.
Most recently, the target was Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom Trump undermined with a tweet Monday and with whom, the Times reports, Trump has recently become frustrated. Trump blamed Sessions’s Justice Department for mishandling the entry ban, but he is reportedly also annoyed that Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation after it was revealed that he’d met with the Russian ambassador last year despite telling the Senate that he hadn’t been in contact with Russian officials.
If you’re a potential FBI director, this is the situation you’re stepping into. Your boss, Sessions, is under fire from a quixotic president who may also try to lean on you to conduct your investigation with a particular aim in mind. That president is also deeply unpopular with the American public, meaning that your service under his administration may be viewed less than charitably in the future.
With that context in mind, the question isn’t why no FBI director has yet been named. The question is when one might be.