When President Trump decided to fire former FBI director James Comey in May, the White House swiftly moved to damage-control mode.
“He’s a showboat. He’s a grandstander,” Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt at the time. “The FBI has been in turmoil. You know that, I know that, everybody knows that.”
Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, attempting to buff up the president’s claims, said she’d talked to more than 50 FBI officials and employees in the 48 hours following Comey’s firing, all of whom, she said, were jubilant about the president’s decision.
“The president knew that Director Comey was not up the task,” she said. “He wanted somebody that could bring credibility back to the FBI. That had been lost over these last several months.”
A trove of emails was acquired over the weekend by Lawfare Blog, which had submitted four Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in June for “communications to the workforce from senior FBI leadership regarding Comey’s firing.” The more than 100 pages of internal emails they got back showed that the FBI’s rank-and-file were shocked by the firing of a widely-respected director.
“The first reaction the documents reflect is simple shock, confusion and disbelief,” Lawfare’s Nora Ellingsen, Quinta Jurecic, Sabrina McCubbin, Shannon Togawa Mercer, and Benjamin Wittes wrote. “The words ‘unprecedented’, ‘tumultuous’, ‘shock’ and ‘surprise’ appear in a great many of the emails.”
According to Lawfare, many members of various FBI field offices went out of their way to deliver gifts to the former director in the wake of his dismissal. The special agent in charge of the Minneapolis field office, Richard Thornton, shared an anecdote about how Comey made it a practice to thank his local law enforcement escort while traveling — even in Los Angeles after finding out he had been fired.
“You could see him take the time to greet and speak to the motorcade escort police… In spite of him just finding out he had been fired as the Director,” Thornton wrote in one email. “He demonstrated his appreciation and respect for the FBI’s law enforcement partners.”
At the time, the bureau also released a rare statement from then-Acting Director Andrew McCabe about the Comey firing, in which he implored his staff to “hang in there.”
“As men and women of the FBI, we are at our best when times are tough,” he wrote. “Please stay focused on the mission, keep doing great work, be good to each other and we will get through this together.”
McCabe resigned last week, after being targeted by Trump and accused of political bias.
Together, these emails show an agency shocked and struggling to cope with the increasing politicization at the hands of Trump and House Republicans, rather than a bureau upset and demoralized by Comey’s leadership, as both the president and the White House suggested in the immediate aftermath.
The politicization appears likely to continue in the wake of Rep. Devin Nunes’ (R-CA) supposedly “shocking” intelligence memo, which was made public on Friday and alleges that the Justice Department’s ongoing Russia investigation has been tainted by political bias. Over the weekend, Republicans and the White House alike suggested that the memo — which focuses on a surveillance warrant requested by the FBI to monitor former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page — proved there was corruption at the highest levels of the department and that the Justice Department’s investigation was simply a witch hunt intended to undermine Trump’s election victory.
As many on Capitol Hill and beyond have since noted, the memo fails to mention any of the underlying documents and research which led to the surveillance request. It also does not take into account the fact that Page was previously known to the FBI due to his many communications with Russian individuals over the years.