If President Donald Trump selects Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn as his next FBI director it would accelerate a major shift in Republican politics with implications for both the Senate and the national GOP.
The Texas senator is seriously considering accepting the job if nominated, sources said. He spoke with Attorney General Jeff Sessions about the post earlier this week and is interviewing with the former Alabama senator on Saturday — both indications that Cornyn is a true contender for the post.
In the short-term, the Texas Republican’s elevation would trigger a new round of leadership elections in the Senate, where McConnell is the only GOP leader not subject to term limits at the end of 2018. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 3 Republican, would be the early favorite to succeed Cornyn as whip. A source close to Thune said he is likely to run for the whip position if Cornyn leaves the Senate.
Republican senators had been planning to make leadership election decisions in 18 months, not this spring.
“It’s still fairly early on and we’re still trying to stay focused on the task at hand right now,” Thune said in an interview earlier this month. “Hopefully if you do work hard and do a good job, sometimes some of those doors open.”
Thune donated $2 million of his campaign money last year to the National Republican Senatorial Committee and is hanging on to millions more that could boost the GOP’s efforts to pick up more seats in 2018.
A Senate vacancy in Texas would be a major prize for Republicans in the state. Though Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke is already challenging Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in 2018, Cornyn’s seat would still be viewed as an easy hold for Republicans. Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas) has shown recent interest in a Senate run. If Cornyn is confirmed as FBI director there would be a special election for the seat, though the Texas governor would appoint an interim replacement.
Cornyn’s elevation could also disrupt fragile negotiations to repeal Obamacare. Cornyn has been in nearly every meeting regarding the Senate’s attempt to pass a new health care bill.
The genial Texas senator also serves as the Senate GOP’s chief spokesman given McConnell’s reluctance to engage on a daily basis with the press in the Capitol. A new whip would also have to get up to speed on running the Senate floor at a critical juncture, a task complicated by the almost daily controversies that Trump creates.
That would mean an adjustment for the Senate Republican Conference.
“The current leadership team is working pretty well,” said one GOP senator.
If he’s offered the job and accepts, Cornyn’s confirmation could turn into a brutal partisan affair that would grip the Senate for weeks. He appears unlikely to receive traditional senatorial deference from Democrats, given the blowback over Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey as the agency was investigating potential ties between Trump campaign and Russia.
Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), get along well with Cornyn, from their work on legislation over the years and workouts in the Senate gym. But Cornyn is also an intensely partisan Republican and would surely face attacks over his recent defense of Trump even as the Republican previously called for special prosecutors during Barack Obama’s presidency.
Cornyn asked former Attorney General Loretta Lynch to appoint a special counsel to investigate Hillary Clinton’s email use, but has resisted Democrats’ calls for one to probe Trump campaign contacts with Russia. Earlier this year he called the two situations “apples and oranges.”
Though Republicans believe Democrats would support Cornyn, Democrats are already suggesting that they will make their votes contingent on a special prosecutor being appointed to investigate Trump associates’ ties with Russia. Cornyn acknowledged in an interview this week that any FBI nomination will become an all-consuming affair in the Senate, which has historically confirmed FBI directors with little or no dissent.
“Whoever the new FBI director nominee is going to be, you can imagine what that will be like in terms of getting commitments to pursue this [Russia] investigation,” Cornyn said.
Cornyn would face an excruciating decision whether to accept the job if it’s offered. The Texas Republican has deep relationships with his GOP Senate colleagues from two terms running the party’s campaign arm and said in a recent interview that he wants to be Senate leader someday. The former Texas attorney general also has the relevant committee experience for the FBI director job, with his positions on the Judiciary and Intelligence panels.
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is showing no signs of giving up the top leadership job. The Kentucky senator is plotting a run for reelection in 2020, which could keep him as leader until 2026.
There’s also the question of job security. Though the FBI director enjoys a 10-year term that can span multiple presidencies, the firing of Comey has raised the question of whether future presidents will summarily fire directors chosen by the other party.
Plus, the new director will be thrust into a hugely consequential Russia investigation that could sweep up Trump associates. Senators in both parties say they want the next director to enjoy independence from the White House.
"You want an independent individual who won’t be swayed by who nominated him. That’s the bottom line,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said in an interview this week.