In its frantic efforts to veil the president’s motives in firing FBI Director James Comey last May, the White House immediately propagated the argument that Comey was a controversial and incompetent leader who had undermined morale at the law enforcement agency. The president himself told NBC’s Lester Holt that the FBI “has been in turmoil. You know that, I know that, everybody knows that. You take a look at the FBI a year ago, it was in virtual turmoil — less than a year ago. It hasn’t recovered from that.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders pushed the narrative much farther, claiming that the “rank and file” at the FBI were “grateful and thankful” for the president’s action in removing their troublesome chief, despite Acting Director Andrew McCabe’s denial that there was any “turmoil” at the agency.
McCabe wasn’t the only person familiar with rank-and-file sentiment at the FBI to push back hard against Sanders’s unsupported claims, or for that matter, Trump’s smear of Comey (to Russian diplomats, no less) as “crazy, a nutjob.” At the influential site for expert commentary on the law and national security issues, Lawfareblog, former FBI agent Norah Ellingsen reported that Comey was far from a divisive figure in the Bureau:
[T]he basic truth is that while Comey was a controversial figure in the larger political system and among Justice Department officials, he was not a controversial figure at the FBI at all. Nearly everyone loved him. In any other piece, I would caveat this statement as obvious hyperbole and oversimplification of the situation, but the degree of consensus on this point as I have talked to people has been incredible.
In June, frustrated by the difficulty of resolving the question via warring assertions, Lawfareblog founder Ben Wittes filed Freedom of Information Act requests for copies of intra-FBI communications in the wake of the Comey filing, on this rationale:
When you decapitate an organization like the FBI, managers have to tell their staffs, after all … In an organization “in turmoil,” one run by a “nut job,” in whom the rank and file have “lost confidence,” one might expect such an email to have a celebratory flavor, to talk about how the long national nightmare is over, say, or how there’s a great opportunity to restore sanity to the organization. On the other hand, when a beloved leader is removed by a President in what is seen as an attack on the institution, one might expect an email with a very different tone.
In response to these requests, Lawfareblog is now in possession of 103 pages of “messages from FBI leadership around the country and across the bureau regarding the firing of Director Comey.” The picture it paints is very clear:
What does it show? 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 …
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.
Whatever else the firing of Comey and subsequent actions by the White House to stop the Russia investigation signify, they show a reckless disregard for the impact on the FBI, which was not demoralized until Trump demoralized it. All the loose GOP talk in connection with the Nunes memo of “cleansing” the FBI has got to be making the atmosphere a lot worse, particularly among career types who must be in profound shock — if not seized by hysterical laughter — by the suggestion that the Bureau has been in the grips of some sort of leftist cabal.
You have to figure that within the FBI (and for that matter, the Justice Department and other organs of the law enforcement system) there are people inclined to ideological agreement with Trump who see a clear opportunity for advancement by becoming loud and proud about it. But that could stiffen the resolve of others to outlast — if not combat — the vandals at the gates.