The news of FBI director James Comey’s firing struck like a thunderclap at field offices around the country, where agents heard first from TV or the internet that their boss had been dismissed by President Donald J. Trump.
“I’m literally in tears right now. That’s all I have to say,” said a longtime special agent who’s known and worked with Comey for years, who first heard the news on the car radio.
FBI heads are appointed to 10-year terms in order to guarantee the political independence and integrity of the federal government’s top law enforcement agency. While nothing prevents a president from cutting short an FBI director’s term, such a move is typically reserved for instances of wrongdoing, such as President Bill Clinton’s 1993 dismissal of William Sessions amid an internal ethics investigation.
By Tuesday evening, the shock that initially spread throughout the ranks of current and former FBI officials was mixed with a growing sense of anger among the many Comey loyalists in the bureau, and demands for answers as to why the director had been fired – and why now.
“We just have no idea why this happened. No idea,” said one recently retired top FBI official who worked closely with Comey on multiple high-profile investigations. “No one knew this was coming. Everyone is just shocked that this happened.”
The former official said current and former agents were lighting up his phone, text and emails, and asking about the timing of Trump’s decision, especially so long after taking office – and while Comey was out of town.
Rank-and-file agents were immediately suspicious of the timing of Tuesday’s decision, questioning whether the ongoing investigations into Trump associates’ contacts with Russian government officials was the precipitating factor, even as the White House and Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited Comey’s misstatements this week in congressional testimony about Hillary Clinton’s emails.
“Everyone is asking, ‘Why now? What is the reason for doing it now?’” the former official said. “If this had happened immediately after the election, that would be one thing. Everyone was thinking it may happen then. But now? People keep asking if it’s because of Russia.”
At FBI headquarters, one senior official said the bureau was essentially in lockdown, not answering calls flooding in and referring all questions to the Justice Department. “I got nothing for you. Sorry,” said the official. “We were caught totally off guard.”
The Justice Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in his memo recommending the director’s ouster wrote: “The FBI is unlikely to regain public and congressional trust until it has a director who understands the gravity of the mistakes and pledges never to repeat them. Having refused to admit his errors, the Director cannot be expected to implement the necessary corrective actions.”
Mike German, a former FBI special agent who’s now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and Security Program, said Comey’s firing puts the bureau in a tough spot as it continues its investigations into Russian meddling in the election on Trump’s behalf.
“The working agents don’t like the way the FBI has been portrayed over the last six or eight or 10 months,” said German, German, a 16-year veteran FBI agent who left in 2004 after reporting problems in FBI counterterrorism operations to Congress. “I think this will be very tough. It’s really going to require a non-politicized effort to ensure the current investigations are allowed to proceed without any interference.”
“I think the way it was done was not real nice,” said former agent Lewis Schiliro, who spent 25 years at the FBI before retiring in 2000 as head of the New York field office. “He could have asked for his resignation and given him a little bit of time to bow out gracefully.”
Schiliro added that Comey had undermined his status by holding a press conference last fall to announce that he was closing the investigation into Clinton’s private server—while chastising her for “careless” handling of official email correspondence. “He brought the bureau into a political situation when it ought not to be. That’s not the place for the FBI,” said Schiliro. “I think Comey was trying to play investigator and prosecutor and putting both hats on was a drastic mistake on his part.”
“His press conference ought to have been two sentences: ‘The FBI has concluded its investigation. The facts of the matter have been presented to the Department of Justice for a prosecution decision.’ Thank you very much and walk off,” Schiliro added. “That’s the way it’s done.”
While the FBI has been polarized since the election, Trump’s decision will likely cause a “significant amount of backlash” within the bureau’s rank and file, said David Gomez, a former FBI agent who led the Seattle field office until his 2011 retirement.
“They’re going to view this as a political decision that impugns not only the integrity of director Comey but of the entire FBI itself,” he said.
“It’s ill advised,” Gomez added of Trump’s firing. “It’s a political thing that is going to, to use the vernacular, come back and bite him in the butt.”
Josh Gerstein contributed to this report.