Any discussion of President Donald Trump’s appointment of a new FBI director should start with an acknowledgement that he shouldn’t be allowed to do this. Yes, Trump has the statutory authority, but he reportedly tried to secure a loyalty oath from then-Director James Comey and directly asked him to stop investigating former national-security adviser Michael Flynn. Then Trump fired Comey and admitted that “when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.’”
In a rational political system, Trump would have forfeited his standing to choose a new director. Congress should have demanded that Trump, at most, be allowed to pick from a list of names generated by members of the House and Senate judiciary committees, or by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Instead, Trump will reportedly tap former senator Joe Lieberman for the position. It’s an awful choice from any angle. Lieberman works at a law firm that has represented Trump since 2001, which should be an immediate disqualifier, since the FBI will continue to investigate Trump’s campaign and potentially obstruction of justice by the president himself.
A politician has never served as FBI director, and breaking that precedent under these circumstances would be particularly egregious. Not only is Lieberman a politician, but he’s openly loyal to Trump and the GOP: Lieberman endorsed John McCain in 2008 and introduced Sarah Palin at the Republican National Convention. He showed up at Trump Tower after the 2016 election and has been touting some of Trump’s cabinet picks, testifying on behalf of now–Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at her Senate confirmation hearing.
But Lieberman’s record on civil liberties is the single most alarming thing about his selection. Throughout his career in the Senate, Lieberman consistently showed a disregard for basic Constitutional protections and ambitiously pursued expansions of the government’s ability to surveil and detain Americans without judicial review. He has also advocated investigating news outlets for reporting on classified information, and once defended waterboarding by saying “it’s not like putting burning coals on people’s bodies.” Combined with his near-demagogic focus on Islam as a radicalizing force, Lieberman is a wildly bad pick for the nation’s top law enforcement officer.
In 2010, Lieberman and McCain introduced the “Enemy Belligerent Interrogation, Detention and Prosecution Act.” Conservatives were up in arms at the time that the Obama administration chose to prosecute Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in civilian courts for planning a Christmas Day terror attack. The Lieberman/McCain bill would have granted the government power to indefinitely detain terrorism suspects without a trial or even a charge. If the government determined, in an unreviewable process, that someone was an “unprivileged enemy belligerent,” then the legislation required the suspect be placed in a military tribunal.