A spokesman for President-elect Donald Trump pointedly declined to back embattled FBI Director James B. Comey on Monday, saying Trump would meet with the nation’s top law enforcement officer “at some point.’’
“There hasn’t been any official statement with regard to Director Comey,’’ Trump spokesman Jason Miller said during the transition team’s daily briefing. Asked if Trump would seek the resignation of Comey, who played a controversial role in the presidential campaign’s final days, Miller said only: “I would imagine that at some point, the two will meet.”
Comey drew biting criticism at various points from Republicans and Democrats over the FBI’s handling of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state. Clinton has told donors she blamed her surprising loss on the FBI chief, who told Congress 11 days before the election that the bureau was reviewing further Clinton emails, then said two days before Election Day that the review had not changed his decision not to recommend charges against Clinton.
Trump, who at times assailed the FBI and called Comey corrupt during the campaign, told “60 Minutes” after his election victory that he had not decided whether to ask Comey to step down. “I haven’t made up my mind. I respect him a lot. I respect the FBI a lot,’’ said Trump, adding that he wanted to meet with Comey before deciding.
Comey is in the fourth year of a 10-year term that began in September 2013, and the FBI director typically does not change with a new president to preserve the job’s independence. But presidents can remove an FBI director, as Bill Clinton did in 1993, when he fired William S. Sessions halfway through Clinton’s first year in office over allegations of ethical issues.
Officials close to Comey have told The Washington Post that he has no plans to leave, despite the barrage of criticism he faced over his decisions on the Clinton probe. The FBI has declined to comment.
According to the Congressional Research Service, the 10-year term was meant by Congress to inhibit a president from removing a director for political reasons.
The comments came as new possible candidates emerged for homeland security secretary, a crucial post under Trump because the president-elect has vowed to crack down on illegal immigration and build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, who retired this year as chief of U.S. Southern Command, is under consideration for the position, people familiar with the selection process said. Also under consideration is Frances Townsend, a top homeland security and counterterrorism official in the George W. Bush administration, they said.
Kelly, a widely respected military officer who served for more than 40 years, clashed with the Obama administration over its plans to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and to put women fully into combat roles. He met with Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence on Sunday.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach also met with Trump on Sunday and appeared to be carrying in a written plan for homeland security. According to one page of the plan photographed by the Associated Press, it focused in part on questioning “high-risk” immigrants over their alleged support for sharia law. Kobach is an immigration hard-liner who influenced Trump’s views on the subject and has helped lead the fight against President Obama’s executive actions on immigration.
Trump and Pence on Monday resumed meetings with potential Cabinet choices and advisers at Trump Tower in Manhattan. Among those scheduled to meet with the two are former Texas governor Rick Perry (R), Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) and former House speaker Newt Gingrich.
No announcements are imminent, officials said Monday, adding that Trump is planning to spend Thanksgiving with his family at Mar-a-Lago, his private club in Palm Beach, Fla. Asked to address criticism that Trump’s Cabinet picks so far have lacked diversity, Miller vowed that Trump’s administration will look like America.
“Obviously we still have a long ways to go. . . . But I think when you get to the end, you’ll see a very broad and diverse administration,’’ said Miller. He also said lawyers are reviewing all of Trump’s pre-election meetings to spot any potential ethical issues.
“All meetings that are taking place, counsel is comfortable with. . . . We have counsel involved, and we’re comfortable with where everything is,’’ Miller said. Trump has drawn criticism for allowing his daughter, Ivanka, and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to join a meeting Thursday with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Ivanka Trump is expected to play a major role in running Trump’s businesses during his presidency.
The new developments came after a weekend in which job seekers, advisers and would-be allies paraded through Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., as Trump worked on filling his Cabinet. By Sunday, retired Marine Gen. James Mattis had emerged as a leading contender for defense secretary.
Members of the Trump team took to the Sunday morning talk shows. Pence, who heads Trump’s transition, and the incoming chief of staff, Reince Priebus, defended Trump’s Cabinet picks so far and elaborated on Trump’s more controversial campaign promises, including the reinstatement of waterboarding and a ban on Muslims entering the country.
Trump, who met Saturday with Mattis, called him “the real deal” and a “brilliant, wonderful man.” In a tweet early Sunday, Trump said: “General James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis, who is being considered for Secretary of Defense, was very impressive yesterday. A true General’s General!”
A person familiar with transition discussions, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that no decision has been reached about whether Mattis will join the Trump administration. Now a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Mattis has publicly criticized President Obama’s defense and national security policies.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, whom Trump met with on Saturday for more than an hour, is under “active and serious consideration” to serve as secretary of state, Pence said.
“I know the president-elect was very grateful that governor Mitt Romney came here to New Jersey yesterday,” Pence said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “We spent the better part of an hour together with him. And then I know that the two of them actually had some private time together. I would tell you that it was not only a cordial meeting but also it was a very substantive meeting.” It is still an open question whether Romney, once a fierce critic of the president-elect, would be willing to serve in his administration.
After Trump and Pence attended services at nearby Lamington Presbyterian Church in Bedminster, they began back-to-back meetings with a dozen people, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was ousted as chairman of Trump’s transition team; former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani; and Kansas Secretary of State Kobach, an immigration hard-liner. Trump spokesman Jason Miller said “there definitely is a possibility” that more Cabinet announcements could be made Monday.
In his interview on CBS, Pence did not rule out the possibility that Trump could reinstate waterboarding as an interrogation technique against accused terrorists during his administration, a practice that Congress made illegal after its use during the George W. Bush administration.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), speaking Saturday at the Halifax International Security Forum, insisted that any attempt to bring back waterboarding, which simulates drowning, would be quickly challenged in court.
“I don’t give a damn what the president of the United States wants to do or anybody else wants to do,” McCain said. “We will not torture. My God, what does it say about America if we’re going to inflict torture on people?”
Pence said he has “great respect for Senator McCain” but added that “we’re going to have a president again who will never say what we’ll never do.”
“What I can tell you is that going forward, as he outlined in that famous speech in Ohio, is that a President Donald Trump is going to focus on confronting and defeating radical Islamic terrorism as a threat to this country,” Pence said.
In December, as a candidate, Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims” entering the country.
Asked about the idea of such a ban, Priebus, who appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, said, “I’m not going to rule out anything, but we’re not going to have a registry based on a religion.”
Priebus was asked on another Sunday television show about a tweet in February by retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, whom Trump has chosen as his national security adviser. Flynn tweeted, “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.”
“Is that the official policy of the Trump administration that fear of Muslims is rational?” asked Jake Tapper, host of the CNN show.
“Well, of course not,” Priebus said. “Look, I think, in some cases, there are radical members of that religion that need to be dealt with, but certainly we make it clear that that’s not a blanket statement for everyone. And that’s how we’re going to lead.”
Priebus also vowed that Trump’s White House counsel will ensure that Trump avoids all conflicts of interest with his business ventures during his administration.
Last week, Trump held a meeting at Trump Tower with three business partners building a Trump property south of Mumbai. His daughter Ivanka Trump, a vice president at the Trump Organization and one of the family members who will be in charge of Donald Trump’s businesses after he takes office, attended his meeting last week with the Japanese prime minister.
Michelle Ye Hee Lee, Amy B Wang, Kristine Guerra, Greg Jaffe and Missy Ryan contributed to this report.