Donald Trump is reported to be leaning toward making Joe Lieberman his new FBI director, despite Lieberman’s work for a Trump-connected law firm and his scant criminal-law experience.
The former U.S. senator from New Haven was one of four candidates Trump was interviewing Wednesday as possible replacements for ousted FBI Director James Comey.
By Thursday afternoon, Lieberman was being pegged as the “frontrunner” after “bonding” with the president. Lieberman is 75; the FBI director is named to a 10-year term.
Lieberman served four six-year Senate terms while living in New Haven’s Westville neighborhood, three as a Democrat, then a final term as an independent after he lost the 2006 Democratic primary. He has a long history of working with Republicans as well as Democrats. He did endorse Democrat Hillary Clinton over Republican Trump in the 2016 presidential election. (Lieberman left New Haven after leaving office in 2013.)
Trump is facing a crisis in his presidency after firing Comey — allegedly because of Comey’s investigation into the Trump camp’s ties to Russia and Russian meddling in the 2016 election — and after the revelation this week that Trump allegedly asked Comey to spare former aide Michael Flynn in that probe, not to mention reports that Trump revealed sensitive intelligence secrets in a meeting with Russia’s ambassador. (Trump has denied all the allegations.)
Since leaving office, Lieberman, a former Connecticut attorney general, has taken a post as senior counsel at the New York-based law firm Kasowitz Benson Torres Friedman LLP.
The firm has for more than a decade been representing a prominent client in high-profile lawsuits—one Donald J. Trump.
That alone should disqualify Lieberman as FBI director, argued David Rosen, a prominent New Haven civil rights attorney who has also taught a course at Yale Law School on professional responsibility.
Rosen said in an interview that Lieberman “has a lifetime of ethical public service” to his credit. However, Rosen said, “I would be surprised if there’s no conflict of interest here.”
“Trump’s doings are on the FBI’s plate right now. To have one of his lawyers heading the FBI creates problems that it’s hard to see how to untangle,” Rosen remarked.
Another prominent local attorney and legal observer, Norm Pattis, wasn’t so sure about the potential conflict.
Kasowitz Benson, with a reputation as “Trump’s go-to law firm,” has 270 attorneys.
“It’s a large firm,” noted Pattis, who voted for Donald Trump for president in 2016. “The fact that that firm may have done work for Trump doesn’t mean that Lieberman did it. It’s not at all uncommon for the right hand not to know what the left hand is doing.”
Ethics aside, Pattis predicted that Lieberman will not be picked, for political reasons — “given the superheated political climate,” in which Trump may want to take care to avoid even the appearance of a conflict. Pattis also noted that Lieberman’s legal background is in civil, not criminal, law.
Trump is considering at least three other candidates for the FBI post:
• Andrew McCabe, the acting FBI director who testified against Trump’s version of events after Trump fired Comey.
• Frank Keating, Oklahoma’s former Republican governor and a former deputy attorney general under President Ronald Reagan, who is a former FBI agent.
• Richard McFeely, who ran the FBI’s Baltimore field office.