Texas’ U.S. Sen. John Cornyn is on President Donald Trump’s shortlist to replace James Comey as FBI director, a politically perilous posting at a fraught moment in American political history.
Cornyn, 65, a member of Senate leadership as majority whip who is as establishment and predictable a political figure as the president is an unpredictable political outsider, didn’t rule out accepting the job if it were offered.
But in a single sentence statement released by his office he said, “I have the distinct privilege of serving 28 million Texans in the United States Senate, and that is where my focus remains.”
The White House confirmed Friday that Cornyn was on a list of 11 potential nominees, first reported by Fox News.
The other 10 are:
• Former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.
• Former House Intelligence Committee Chairman and former FBI agent Mike Rogers.
• Former Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher.
• U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C.
• Paul Abbate, executive assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal, Cyber, Response and Services Branch.
• Former New York prosecutor Mike Garcia.
• Colorado Springs, Colo., Mayor John Suthers.
• Former federal appellate court Judge Michael Luttig, now executive vice president of Boeing.
• Larry Thompson, deputy attorney general under President George W. Bush.
• Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe.
While Cornyn did serve as both a Texas Supreme Court justice and state attorney general before being elected to the Senate, he would seem among the least likely picks on the list.
Rice University political scientist Mark Jones noted that for all the other 10 candidates, the FBI job would appear to be a step up, while for Cornyn, who is already playing a critical role as the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, the FBI job would be seen as a step down. While Cornyn’s term as whip ends next year, he would still remain an influential senior senator with a term that runs through 2020.
While never particularly in Trump’s thrall, Cornyn has been a loyal partisan since Trump entered the White House.
Cornyn defended Trump when he suddenly fired Comey as FBI director this week — whether it was because the president felt Comey had botched the handling of the Hillary Clinton email case during the campaign, because he was too aggressively pursuing alleged Russian interference in the 2016 campaign to benefit Trump or because he wasn’t sufficiently loyal and had recently testified to Congress that he was “mildly nauseous” thinking that he might have influenced the 2016 election’s outcome.
“This was within the president’s authority, but it is really important, it is absolutely essential, that we have a new FBI director that shares the confidence, not only of the president but of Congress and the American people,” Cornyn said Wednesday on Fox News.
Were he chosen, Cornyn would be stepping onto history’s stage at a crucial juncture in the Trump presidency. But, as Comey’s sudden sacking suggests, despite the prescribed 10-year term, the FBI job would be filled with uncertainty, and the new FBI chief would likely face a harsh judgment by partisans on one side or the other no matter what he did.
Cornyn’s inclusion on the list came even as historically black Texas Southern University canceled Cornyn’s planned Saturday commencement address amid opposition from students upset about his politics. On Wednesday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was booed as she delivered a commencement speech at Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black school in Florida.
If Cornyn were to leave the Senate to head the FBI he would set off a political domino effect in Texas.
Gov. Greg Abbott would get to appoint a temporary successor to Cornyn, who would serve until the November general election, when all candidates of all parties would compete to serve the remainder of Cornyn’s term. If no candidate got more than 50 percent of the vote, there would be a runoff.
The last time Texans voted in a special election to fill the term of a senator who left his post was 1993, when Lloyd Bentsen resigned his Senate seat to become President Bill Clinton’s treasury secretary.
Gov. Ann Richards appointed Bob Krueger to the seat on Jan. 21, 1993; that May, he and Kay Bailey Hutchison were the top two vote-getters in a special election to serve out Bentsen’s term. Hutchison won in a June runoff.
This time, should it happen, Abbott could either choose a placeholder to just fill the seat through November or give a leg up to a candidate wanting to fill the rest of Cornyn’s term. On the Republican side, obvious potential candidates for appointment or election would be Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Land Commissioner George P. Bush and U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who toyed with running against Sen. Ted Cruz, who is up for re-election in 2018.
On the Democratic side, U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of El Paso is already running to challenge Cruz, but if Cornyn’s seat were up, he could first run for that and still run against Cruz if he doesn’t win. Alternatively, he could stick to running against Cruz, and U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio, who passed on running in 2018 at least in part because he would have had to surrender his House seat to do it, could run to serve the rest of Cornyn’s term without risking his House seat.
And if Patrick were to succeed Cornyn in Washington, the members of the Texas Senate would select his successor until a new lieutenant governor was elected in 2018.