President Donald Trump may be dramatically miscalculating how much support Sen. Joe Lieberman has among his former Democratic colleagues to become FBI director.
Some Senate Democrats hold a grudge against Lieberman for his rightward turn and opposition to some of President Barack Obama’s agenda late in his Senate career. Others say even though they respect Lieberman, the FBI director should not be a former politician. And all Democratic senators interviewed for this story said the former Connecticut senator lacks the kind of experience needed for the post.
The 2004 Democratic vice presidential candidate, who later caucused with the party as an independent in the Senate after losing his 2006 Senate primary, has emerged as a frontrunner to replace fired FBI Director James Comey. But Lieberman’s nomination would likely produce the most partisan vote for an FBI chief in Senate history. Typically, nominees for the job have been approved unanimously or with token opposition.
“I don’t think there’s going to be much excitement about that from our side of the aisle. Not because we don’t respect Joe Lieberman. But we need a law enforcement professional, not someone who’s run for office before,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). “We don’t need anyone who’s put on a red shirt or blue shirt. Or who’s campaigned for president.” (Lieberman ran for president before becoming Al Gore’s running mate.)
Republicans are lining up behind Lieberman, who left the Senate in 2013 after four terms. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) called him a "person of unquestioned integrity and that’s what we need." Added Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has spoken to Lieberman about the job: "If the president picked Joe Lieberman he’d be doing a country a good service and I think the FBI a good service."
But Republicans seem to be overstating Lieberman’s Democratic support. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) predicted Lieberman would get 100 votes, a near impossibility.
But Lieberman’s relationship with Democrats is damaged. After he left office, he urged senators in his own party to reject Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, infuriating Democrats. And his relationship with McCain and Graham — the trio were known as the “three amigos” — tilted the Senate in a more hawkish direction during the first four years of Obama’s presidency. In 2008, Lieberman endorsed McCain over Obama for president.
“He has a history of angering Democrats and Republicans, which is probably a good experience for being FBI director. But my concern is about someone with a political background. This is a moment for someone with a law enforcement background,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who holds Lieberman’s old seat. “It’s really important to restore people’s faith in the FBI.”
Perhaps most surprising, Lieberman lacks of support across the Democratic ideological spectrum. Moderates like McCaskill and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who are up for reelection in 2018 and could face difficult votes if Lieberman is indeed in the nominee, are not lobbying for the former centrist Democratic senator.
“Any other time, man, Joe is an excellent, excellent, choice,” Manchin said.
Many liberals flat out don’t like Lieberman. In an interview, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) fumed about Lieberman’s efforts to undercut more generous Medicare benefits in Obamacare and his relative closeness to Trump. After a monologue on Lieberman’s faults, Brown ended by telling a reporter: “That’s all on the record.”
“Joe Lieberman has no real law enforcement credentials. Look where he works now, a Trump law firm. That tells me a lot,” Brown said, referring to the law firm where Lieberman now works that represents Trump.
Lieberman also opposed a Democratic proposal to extend Medicare to people 55 and older, infuriating liberals. “He’s the reason we lost Medicare at 55 … Couldn’t have had anything to do with the insurance industry lobbying in Hartford. I’m sure Lieberman couldn’t succumb to that,” Brown said sarcastically.
Trump said on Thursday he’s “very close” on selecting a nominee. Republicans have the votes to confirm him if they stay united. But Lieberman is unlikely to garner a large bipartisan majority, which could fuel accusations that Republicans are politicizing the FBI.
“We ought to stay away from political figures,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “All the voting history, all the party history, whatever it is, I would stay away from it. Stick with the professionals.”
Elana Schor contributed to this report.