As the White House scrambled to explain President Donald Trump’s sudden firing of FBI Director James Comey, one of the main reasons given was that the nation’s top law enforcement agent had lost the support of his own rank and file.
At best, that assertion has little basis in reality, according to the two people in the best position to know. More likely, they said, available anecdotal evidence suggests that it’s flat out wrong.
In interviews with POLITICO, the heads of the two associations representing current and retired FBI agents, analysts and other personnel said that by all available measures, Comey enjoys enormous support among the 35,000 people who work for him, and the many thousands of others who have retired or left the bureau.
“His support within the rank and file of the FBI is overwhelming,” said Thomas O’Connor, a working FBI special agent who is president of the FBI Agents Association.
Comey’s firing “was described to me today by at least three agents as a gut punch to the organization,” said O’Connor, a counterterrorism agent in the FBI’s Washington D.C. field office. He said neither agents, nor the association "saw this coming," and didn’t think Comey did anything to deserve such treatment.
On Wednesday, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump’s “termination” of Comey came after the President learned that the Justice Department and “bipartisan members of Congress” had lost confidence in the FBI director.
“Most importantly, the rank and file of the FBI had lost confidence in their director,” Sanders said. “Accordingly, the president accepted the recommendation of his deputy attorney general to remove James Comey from his position.”
O’Connor disputed Sanders’ characterization: “I believe that that is not the perception of the FBI at all.”
Comey certainly had his detractors among some current and former FBI agents, especially for his decision not to prosecute Hillary Clinton after investigating her use of a homebrew server for work emails as Secretary of State, as well as allegations over misconduct at the Clinton Foundation.
Greg Roman, an intelligence analyst in the FBI’s Kansas City field office, said Comey’s handling of the email probe, and his public explanations for not filing charges, “politicized the FBI, and it shook my confidence in his leadership abilities.”
In an internal FBI employee survey in March 2017 that he provided to POLITICO, Roman wrote, “To say I was and am disappointed in Director Comey is an understatement, and I doubt I am hardly alone [in] saying this. … I hope Director Comey can ‘right the ship,’ and I pray that he can do so.”
But the two associations representing current and former FBI agents have been getting a steady flow of calls, emails and texts since Monday evening, virtually all of them lamenting Comey’s firing, and seeking answers as to why.
The FBI Agents Association, which O’Connor said has 13,000 members, issued a statement Tuesday night urging caution in the naming of a new FBI director given the job’s importance, and praising Comey for his “service, leadership, and support for Special Agents during his tenure.”
“He understood the centrality of the Agent to the Bureau’s mission, recognizing that Agents put their lives on the line every day,” the statement said.
But since his firing, and in the months leading up to it, many agents contacted the association to urge it to do more to support Comey, O’Connor said.
“Most agents can’t talk to the press,” he said, but many were growing ever more agitated as Comey withstood withering criticism.
“They overwhelmingly want us to come out even stronger for Director Comey than we have, saying the association should do more,” O’Connor said. “Now they want to know the reason this happened. And what’s going to happen to the FBI now that Comey is gone?”
Newly installed Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein argued that Comey overstepped his bounds in a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions outlining his reasons for why the FBI needed new leadership.
Sanders did as well during the White House news conference.
While agents and other FBI personnel clearly have divergent viewpoints on Comey’s handling of particular investigations, most believed the director always acted in the best interests of the FBI, especially in trying to make sure politics didn’t interfere with the bureau’s investigations, O’Connor said.
“They believe in the guy, they follow his leadership,” he said, “and they knew that when Director Comey told them something, that it was accurate, Constitutional and apolitical.”
Nancy Savage, executive director of the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI, said many current and retired agents were hopping mad — not only about Comey’s firing, but also over how it was handled, with the FBI director finding out via a TV monitor while delivering a speech to agents in Los Angeles.
“My friends who are on duty have been texting me and they are appalled,” said Savage, a former FBI special agent who retired in 2011 after a long career in the criminal division. “People were upset about losing him, and how he was informed. That’s appalling to our membership. He was a well-respected, well-liked director.”
Savage, who was also the longtime head of the FBI Agents Association, said neither group conducts any kind of scientific survey to measure the popularity of FBI directors. Like O’Connor, she said she was basing her assessment on anecdotal input from the society’s 8,500 retired FBI members and other factors, including events and field visits.
And like O’Connor, she said Comey’s handling of the Clinton and Trump investigations evoked strong feelings among current and former agents, and even some sharp criticism:“Certain disgruntled people are probably talking, and that will always happen in the agency.”
During Savage’s 34 years at the bureau, she worked under 10 directors or acting directors, including William Webster, William Sessions, Louis Freeh and Robert Mueller. Some of them, especially Mueller, “came in at a very difficult time, to a very difficult job and tried to make changes in an organization” that was often resistant to them.
As a result, she said, some of the other directors had a very mixed level of support among the rank and file. “I’ve heard negative things about other directors, but an overwhelmingly positive response on Comey. And that’s not always the norm.”
Savage was one of a small group of former agents who met last Friday with Comey at FBI headquarters to discuss some of his strategic initiatives for the bureau. As usual, she said, he was upbeat, and eager to explain his plans for upgrading information technology tools to better equip agents for fighting high-tech and cyber crime.
Wednesday evening, Comey finally commented publicly on his firing the day before. But instead of criticizing Trump’s decision or defending his actions, he kept it short and simple, in a note to bureau employees that conveyed that their affection for him was mutual.
“I have long believed that a President can fire an FBI director for any reason, or for no reason at all. I’m not going to spend time on the decision or the way it was executed,” Comey wrote, in a note first reported by CNN. “I hope you won’t either. It is done, and I will be fine, although I will miss you and the mission deeply.”