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Why John Cornyn Would Want to be FBI Director

Cornyn’s main motivation for wanting to head the FBI? His political career might hit a dead end soon.

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Illustration by Anna Donlan

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.

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  • WUSRPH

    As I see it, the only real reason for Cornyn to take the job was if it came with a promise of a SCOTUS nomination. As you note, he’s probably at the top of his career in elected office, but he may well—and has often been rumored—want to end his career other Supreme Court bench. He’s not as openly rightist as some would want (but that is only by his image, not his voting record) but it might be easier to sell him as a court appointee since, with his age, the odds are that it would not be a lengthy term. (Although the age of some of the current justices suggests that the late 60s is not as old as it used to be.)

    • R.G. Ratcliffe

      That would make this one way to let it be known that you are available for options.

      • 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.

  • roadgeek

    Thoughtful piece. I had no idea about the term limits thing.

    • WUSRPH

      It is simply a rule that they can change whenever the want. The difference is that an LBJ could get the rule changed if he wanted it….a John Cornyn probably cannot.

      • José

        This GOP appears ready to disregard any rule or tradition that they find inconvenient at the moment. If they like Cornyn in the position and want to keep him there I’m sure they’ll waive the term limit on account of his special skills or some such nonsense. If they don’t want him there any longer or if they want to promote someone else then the rule is a perfect reason to force a change. I wonder who might be next in line.

    • John Cornyn is looking at the realistic possibility of losing his place of power even before he faces reelection in 2020.

  • José

    There’s another high profile job that might be opening up soon. Vice President. And some lucky feller might find himself sitting in the Oval Office, just like Jerry Ford.

    • WUSRPH

      The GOP will not move against Trump until after something he has done (or not done that he should have) has done demonstrable harm to the United States. Incompetence, incapability with the duties of the office and an inability to understand what is going on in the world will not be sufficient, In that case they will simply try to wait him out, hoping that he will “retire” at the end of this term. They can isolate him on every thing but foreign policy without having to remove him until then…..Of course, that still gives him plenty of area to screw-up…..but they would hope for the best. This would likely defer their ability to implement their agenda of repealing the 20th Century, but they would have to accept that. What we have to fear is that he will do something that has real long-range consequences that may be virtually irreversible.

      • José

        WUSRPH – Trump is safe unless he does some “demonstrable harm to the United States”
        Trump – “Hold my beer”

    • anonyfool

      Pence is on the hook for the Flynn coverup.

  • SeeItMyWay

    Does anyone really think Cornyn will receive the appointment? Garland would seem like the most obvious choice in my mind. With all the turmoil going on, I would hope that both parties, along with Trump, would see that a general consensus choice like Garland would be the best one. It would also project the message that Trump is not trying to squelch any continuing efforts to get to the bottom of Russian collusion issue. This said, up to this point, he has shown all to often that rational chioces are not his forte.

    • WUSRPH

      I doubt that Garland would accept the appointment, even if it offered. The whole idea of picking him–other than “bipartisan” PF— is to open up a space on the US Court of Appeals in DC, the second most important post in the federal court system. That would give the GOP the majority on that court.

      • SeeItMyWay

        Yep. Caught that on news a few days ago. Why wouldn’t he accept if asked? His prospects for a SCOTUS appointment under this admin is doubtful. He would be taking on significant task during time of need. He would face little or no scrutiny during the confirmation process, and he would move from a relatively obscure role to a very public one with a distinct chance to make a name for himself. Ego plays a big role, and big egos are not hard to find in politicians and high ranking judges.

        • roadgeek

          I suspect Garland won’t get the position simply because of his loyalty to President Obama and the Clintons.

      • anonyfool

        Garland as chief justice on that court of appeals can give himself a leave of absence and accept the FBI appointment and return to the court of appeals (lifetime federal judgeship) after finishing as FBI director. Federal judges have done this before, and if there are any smart GOP members, they realize this and would never seriously consider Garland. It’s merely a snarky talking point to say Garland should be FBI director.

        https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/05/minimal-constitutionists-want-to-have-it-both-ways/526578/