When President Donald Trump made the decision to fire FBI Director James Comey last year, the White House quickly moved to spread the narrative that Comey had caused turmoil within the bureau and "rank and file" agents were relieved to see him go.
While plenty of people doubted the veracity of White House claims, such as then-Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders' insistence that she had “heard from countless members of the FBI that are grateful and thankful for the president’s decision”, new proof has come to light showing that Sander's, the president, and other White House officials were spinning a tale for the media.
[W]e now have the documents to prove that [Trump and Sanders were playing fast and loose with the truth] decisively. Their disclosure was not a leak but an authorized action by the FBI, which released to us under the Freedom of Information Act more than 100 pages of leadership communications to staff dealing with the firing. This material tells a dramatic story about the FBI’s reaction to the Comey firing—but it is neither a story of gratitude to the president nor a story of an organization in turmoil relieved by a much-needed leadership transition.
Following the firing, numerous individuals connected to the bureau made statements contradicting the White House narrative. Then-Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe tole the Senate Select Committee that Comey “enjoyed broad support within the FBI" and that “the vast majority of employees enjoyed a deep and positive connection to Director Comey.”
He was not alone:
Nora Ellingsen—who served as a counterterrorism analyst at the FBI for several years—talked with roughly 20 of her former colleagues. She characterizedthe opinion of Comey among the FBI’s rank and file as almost universally positive. “Nearly everyone loved him,” she wrote, and the “degree of consensus on this point ... has been incredible.” She went on: “All of the people I talked to described having the same reaction when they heard that the director had been fired: complete shock, followed by deep sadness.”
Benjamin Wittes, editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, decided to file a FOIA request to find out exactly what managers were saying to their teams following Comey's termination.
On June 22, 2017, Wittes made four FOIA requests. One of them sought communications to the workforce from the senior FBI leadership regarding Comey’s firing. Another sought communications on the topic from all the assistant directors and special agents in charge at the FBI’s many components and field offices to their respective teams. When the FBI did not respond in a timely manner, Wittes sued—represented by the folks at Protect Democracy—stating that his purpose was “to show conclusively that President Trump and his White House staff are lying about career federal law enforcement officers, their actions, and their attitudes”.
Over the weekend, Lawfare received 103 of 116 total records constituting the vast majority of communications with staff following Comey's firing.
What did those records reveal?
Simply put, it shows that Ellingsen nailed it when she described a reaction of “shock” and “profound sadness” at the removal of a beloved figure to whom the workforce was deeply attached. It also shows that no aspect of the White House’s statements about the bureau were accurate—and, indeed, that the White House engendered at least some resentment among the rank and file for whom it purported to speak. As Amy Hess, the special agent in charge in Louisville, put it: “On a personal note, I vehemently disagree with any negative assertions about the credibility of this institution or the people herein.”
They contain not a word that supports the notion that the FBI was in turmoil. They contain not a word that reflects gratitude to the president for removing a nut job. There is literally not a single sentence in any of these communications that reflects criticism of Comey’s leadership of the FBI. Not one special agent in charge describes Comey’s removal as some kind of opportunity for new leadership. And if any FBI official really got on the phone with Sanders to express gratitude or thanks “for the president’s decision,” nobody reported that to his or her staff.