President Donald Trump and Texas Sen. John Cornyn are very different.
Trump posed as his own spokesperson in the 1990s, reportedly spouted classified information to Russians at the White House last week and prefers the big picture over the details.
Cornyn is a longtime senator who dutifully rose the ranks to become majority whip, and muses about queso on Twitter. Former aides describe him as a detail-obsessed and thoughtful boss.
“People who really know him think of him as Judge Cornyn, not Senator Cornyn,” said former Texas solicitor general and Cornyn chief counsel James Ho, referring to Cornyn’s tenure on the Texas Supreme Court. “It’s not just because he’s been a judge and an attorney general far longer than he’s been a senator. It’s because he brings a judge’s perspective to every post he holds and every decision he makes. I can’t imagine anyone better suited to lead the FBI today.”
Cornyn, the senior senator from Texas, is the highest-profile name under official consideration to serve as FBI director under Trump after the president abruptly fired James Comey last week. South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy took himself out of consideration on Monday.
Cornyn met with Attorney General Jeff Sessions over the weekend, further fueling speculation that he could lead the agency tasked with investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
And Trump is eager to get a director confirmed quickly to help put the Russia investigation out of the headlines. He could name Comey’s replacement prior to his trip to Saudi Arabia on Friday.
“I think the process is going to go quickly,” Trump said to pool reporters. “Almost all of them are very well known... very well known, highly respected, really talented people. And that’s what we want for the FBI.”
That’s where Cornyn comes in.
Compared with the other choices interviewed by Sessions and the Department of Justice over the weekend, Cornyn is well-known to current senators.
“My suspicion is he may be ready for a new challenge; he’s been in the Senate now for quite a while,” said Vanderbilt University law professor Brian Fitzpatrick, who worked as Cornyn’s special counsel on the Supreme Court nominations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito. “He’s had a lot of really interesting positions in his career in public service, and it would be another interesting way to serve the public.”
But the problem is the political atmosphere in Washington. Senate Democrats likely will stall on whomever Trump nominates while Republican senators such as Susan Collins of Maine and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have voiced concerns over nominating someone to the position who works in a partisan environment.
“John Cornyn under normal circumstances would be a superb choice to be FBI director,” Graham said Sunday on Meet the Press. “But these are not normal circumstances.”
But if Trump nominates Cornyn, Senate Republicans would be forced to vote against one of their party’s own leaders. Trump’s nominee will fail if three Republicans vote against their president.
“I think that for Cornyn you’ve got to remember some people see him as a partisan figure because he’s in leadership, but he has much more of a judicial manner,” said Texas political consultant Matt Mackowiak. “He’s temperamentally suited for a role such as FBI director. Senators generally do better in confirmation hearings and you add that to the fact that Cornyn has been vetted in every way you possibly can.”
Mackowiak said that whomever Trump nominates will likely be confirmed “in the 51- to 54-vote range” because of the fallout after Comey’s dismissal, and that the president cannot nominate a loyalist like former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani to the post.
So that leaves Trump to choose a figure without a national profile like former assistant attorney general Alice Fisher or New York Court of Appeals judge Michael Garcia, or a more known quantity like Cornyn.
“I think the likelihood of Republican defections for Cornyn is really low,” Mackowiak said.
There’s also the issue of Cornyn’s political future. The Texan’s seat is safe for as long as he wants it but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is gearing up for reelection in 2020 and has shown no signs of giving up the top leadership post, meaning Cornyn could be waiting nearly a decade for a shot at the top job.
And a number of current and former senators, including Marco Rubio of Florida and former Texas colleague Kay Bailey Hutchison are supportive of Cornyn leading the FBI.
“I believe Senator Cornyn would do a great job in anything he is asked to do,” Hutchison said in a statement. “He is a valuable Senate leader and would be a superb FBI director or Supreme Court Justice.”
If chosen, Cornyn would lead the FBI for a 10-year term. Comey served for three and a half years before being dismissed by Trump. The White House has shifted its account of why Comey was fired multiple times since it was announced last Tuesday.