President Trump, 24 hours from his self-imposed deadline for picking a new F.B.I. director, told reporters on Thursday that he was “very close” to choosing a successor to James B. Comey, and he named Joseph I. Lieberman, the former Democratic senator and vice-presidential nominee, as a finalist.
But members of Mr. Trump’s staff – alarmed by his rapid embrace of Mr. Lieberman, a charming 75-year-old political operator with no federal law enforcement experience – have quietly urged him to take more time to make such a critical hire.
By late Thursday, the president appeared increasingly likely to leave Friday for a nine-day foreign trip without picking a new director, according to three senior administration officials speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Mr. Lieberman, who served three terms in the Senate as a Democrat and one as an independent, would be an atypical choice to lead the F.B.I., whose agents prize the bureau’s independence as one of Washington’s few apolitical institutions. Judges and former prosecutors, not elected officials, have frequently been chosen.
Administration officials described the search as fluid and said the president and his team were keeping the decision-making process closely held to avoid the leaks that Mr. Trump believes are endemic to the West Wing.
Still, Mr. Trump, speaking briefly with reporters in the Oval Office as he met with President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, offered an emphatic “yes” when asked whether Mr. Lieberman was among the finalists.
“We need a great director of the F.B.I. I cherish the F.B.I. It’s special,” he told reporters later at a joint East Room news conference with Mr. Santos. “All over the world, no matter where you go, the F.B.I. is special.
The F.B.I. has not had that special reputation with what happened in the campaign, what happened with respect to the Clinton campaign, and even, you could say – directly or indirectly – with respect to the much more successful Trump campaign.”
It was unclear whether the president’s acknowledgment that Mr. Lieberman was a finalist was intended to stoke the “Apprentice”-style frenzy of speculation he has favored with other high-profile picks, only to opt for a lesser-known candidate.
Mr. Trump is still seeking applicants, and some aides, along with many law enforcement officials, have suggested that he hire from within the agency to repair some of the damage to morale wrought by Mr. Comey’s sudden firing.
Adam S. Lee, the well-regarded special agent in charge of the bureau’s Richmond, Va., field office, was interviewed, as were Richard A. McFeely, a former senior official at the F.B.I., and Andrew G. McCabe, the acting director.
Mr. McCabe, a veteran agent who joined the bureau in 1996 and once specialized in Russian organized crime, was named deputy director in 2016. It is not clear whether he will return to that role once Mr. Comey’s replacement is confirmed.
All three men are under consideration, the administration officials said, even if Mr. Lieberman, who was Al Gore’s running mate in the 2000 presidential campaign, is the front-runner.