U.S. Senator John Cornyn’s interview for the Trump administration’s FBI director gig over the weekend prompted many to speculate who his Senate replacement could be. But there was also an underlying, and perhaps more pressing, question: Why would Cornyn want the job? The answer is pretty simple. John Cornyn is looking at the realistic possibility of losing his place of power even before he faces reelection in 2020.
As majority whip, Cornyn is the second ranking Republican in the Senate behind Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Texan makes no bones about the fact that he would like to follow McConnell into the office and become the first Senate majority leader from Texas since Lyndon Johnson. There is a catch, however. The Senate Republican Conference has term limits for all its leaders other than the majority. Cornyn will hit his limit in January 2019. So unless the conference gives Cornyn a waiver to serve longer, the senior senator from Texas will go from the number two Republican in the Senate to just another senator, albeit one with seniority.
At a minimum, he would be out of power for two years as he waits to see whether McConnell runs for the Senate again in his home state of Kentucky. If McConnell does not seek reelection or loses his race, Cornyn could try to convince the conference to give him the job he has been wanting, but he wouldn’t automatically be at the head of the list. It’s always much easier to win such an election when you are the next in line instead of simply claiming it is your turn.
So we can’t be terribly surprised that Cornyn, in the wake of President Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey, became a willing participant in the beauty pageant of interviews for the job. Cornyn can make an argument for the job by pointing to his experience as a former Texas attorney general and a member of the state Supreme Court. He has served Texas in the Senate since 2003.
Whether Cornyn sought the position or was asked to interview for it is unclear, because late last week he was assuring journalists that his focus was on serving in the Senate. But when Fox News broke a short list of people who would be interviewing for the job with Cornyn on it, the speculation broke in two ways. In Washington, the speculation turned on who would rise to the majority whip position in the Senate. In Texas, it quickly turned to who Governor Greg Abbott would appoint as the interim senator until a come-one-come-all jungle special election decided who would fill out the remainder of Cornyn’s term through 2020. The most obvious politician, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, was prompted to put out a statement that he did not want the appointment and had no desire to run for the job.
All things considered, though, by Monday Cornyn’s chances of getting the appointment seemed to be tanking.
On Sunday, several news outlets were reporting that McConnell favored former U.S. Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland for appointment as the next FBI director. You may recall that McConnell blocked a confirmation vote on Garland’s appointment by then-President Obama to the Supreme Court last year.
Then there is the fact that Cornyn’s across-the-aisle friend, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, said Democrats will not support confirming a new FBI leader unless a special investigator is appointed to look into Trump’s connections to Russian. Schumer also said the new appointee “should be not a partisan politician, not part of either party.” Similarly, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham took to the Sunday shows and said, “John Cornyn under normal circumstances would be a superb choice to be FBI director. But these are not normal circumstances.”
How partisan has Cornyn been? He once headed the National Republican Senatorial Committee that raised money to run candidates against Democrats and last year had a leadership committee that was the top fundraiser for Republican candidates for Senate. In 2010, Cornyn led the committee to back Charlie Crist in the Florida Republican primary but then switched to Marco Rubio as the tea party favorite gained momentum. If there were any hard feelings, Cornyn and Rubio seemed to have made up.
Also, Trump reportedly demanded loyalty out of Comey, who said he only promised his honesty. Although Cornyn remained relatively neutral in last year’s election, he hit Trump after video came out in which the presidential contender claimed he kissed women whenever he wanted and grabbed them by the crotch. “I am disgusted by Mr. Trump’s words about women: our daughters, sisters and mothers,” Cornyn said at the time. “And I am profoundly disappointed by the race to the bottom this presidential campaign has become.”
Cornyn also miffed Democrats earlier this year by resisting calls for a special counsel to investigate the Trump/Russia claims. He had called for such an investigation of Democrat Hillary Clinton’s private email server while she was Obama’s secretary of state. Cornyn dismissed the two controversies as “apples and oranges.” That does not give much confidence that Cornyn as FBI director would want to skin the orange to find the meat inside.
President Trump has said he will pick a new FBI director by the end of this week. The odds look high that John Cornyn will continue to serve Texas in the Senate.