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How Unprecedented Is James Comey's Firing?

A Q&A with historian Beverly Gage about the history of conflicts between FBI directors and the executive branch

There have only been seven FBI directors in the 82-year history of the Bureau. One, J. Edgar Hoover, served for almost 50 years, which leaves only six directors and about three decades to establish precedent for the relationship between a president and his FBI director.

In that context, just how exceptional is Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey? While the entire ongoing Russia investigation is unprecedented in nature, presidents have squabbled with FBI directors before, and President Clinton even fired one. How do the last few drama-filled days stack up against those squabbles, and how might Trump’s decision affect the Bureau moving forward?

To answer those questions, I spoke to Beverly Gage, a professor of 20th-century American history at Yale University, and the author of a forthcoming biography of J. Edgar Hoover G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the American Century, scheduled for publication in 2018. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Vann R. Newkirk II: I’ll start with the big question. Is James Comey’s firing by Donald Trump an unprecedented clash between president and FBI?

Beverly Gage: The answer is yes and no. It is unprecedented in its extremeness—no president before this moment has fired an FBI director who was engaged in conducting an ongoing and politically sensitive investigation of his own campaign. On the other hand, this sort of conflict between the FBI and the executive branch is not itself totally anomalous. It's something that we've seen over the course of American history. During J. Edgar Hoover's day, he had repeated conflicts with presidents, and he had a kind of autonomous power that allowed to withstand and sometimes win those conflicts, for better or worse. Since then, most presidents have been cautious about this kind of direct confrontation.

Newkirk: Since the height of Hoover's expanded powers, how have the powers of the office of FBI director changed?

Gage: When Hoover came to office in 1924, the FBI wasn't called the FBI yet, and was really just a tiny investigative agency within the Department of Justice (the Bureau of Investigation). It had a few hundred employees, and wasn't very well known. Hoover was brought in to clean up and professionalize it. He then had the good fortune of being there as the government underwent a massive expansion overall. Starting with the New Deal through World War II, the Cold War years, McCarthyism, and the struggles over civil rights in the 1960s, the FBI expanded enormously under Hoover's reign. But partly because nobody saw that coming, there were very few constraints on Hoover's power. There were no intelligence committees in Congress. No one had the right to access FBI files outside of the FBI itself. There was no Freedom of Information Act, and there were no formal limits on the tenure of the FBI director.

Hoover stayed in office for 48 years, and he actually died in office in 1972. He served under eight presidents. Around the 1960s, when people began to question the wisdom of unlimited tenure, Congress passed new laws that limited the time the FBI director could serve to a maximum of 10 years (Director Robert Mueller had his term extended to 12 years in 2011, citing extraordinary security concerns). In the 1970s, we had the development of congressional committees and other forms of accountability that have really constrained—mostly for the better—the power of the FBI director.

Newkirk: How does the tenure limit usually work with the fact that FBI directors, like most other appointed positions, still serve at the pleasure of the president?

Gage: It's notable that the 10-year limit is there in part because it's longer than two presidential terms. Although we tend to think of Hoover as a political villain and someone who always had his fingers in politics (which he did), a lot of his legitimacy was staked on the idea that he was a nonpartisan professional, and one of the few men in Washington who truly stood outside of all the partisan squabbling and whose conclusions in the agency could be relied on.

There's some truth to that, but in Hoover's case it was mostly a fiction. At any rate, the main logic of the FBI director is that since this is a bureau engaged in politically sensitive investigations and often investigating the executive branch itself and political corruption, you want the director to have some autonomy and some independence from political pressure.

Newkirk: So I'm guessing a move like firing an FBI director who is involved in an investigation of the executive branch would undermine that established independence.

Gage: Well, it would seem that an action like this would do that! On the one hand, the stated logic of why this happened—which is that Comey had become compromised and that he had become so controversial that he couldn't carry out the duties of his office—hypothetically, those things might be true or not true. But there's doubt as to whether that's actually the reason Trump set out to fire Comey. The timing and the logic all seem to point more to Russia and the attempt to shut down the investigation.

Newkirk: Given the history you outlined of the independence of the FBI, how should we understand the relationship between the FBI director and the Office of the Attorney General?

Gage: Technically, the attorney general is the FBI director's boss. So while Hoover was truly subordinate in his early days, by the ‘60s and ‘70s he sort of just paid lip service to the idea that the attorney general was his boss. Everybody else did, too, but they all had a sense of who the real boss was in Washington. But since then, it's been a very fluid relationship. Obviously, the DOJ and the FBI are very tightly intertwined, but the logic of the FBI director's position is somewhat different from the attorney general. The attorney general really is understood to be a truly political appointee, whereas the FBI director is supposed to be more removed from politics.

Newkirk: The last firing of an FBI director we had was William Sessions under President Clinton. Are these two events in any way comparable?

Gage: My understanding of Sessions's firing was that it was primarily about ethics violations and corruption, and that's quite different from firing someone who's engaged in an incredibly controversial and politically sensitive investigation of your own administration.

Newkirk: Is it fair to say that Trump's nomination of a replacement for Comey might change the fundamental role of the FBI and the FBI director?

Gage: The big question is whether Trump is going to appoint someone who appears to be a loyalist and is there to do what Trump wants him to do, or whether Trump is going to follow what has been the tradition and appoint someone with some measure of real autonomy and independence. We don't know what he's going to do. If he does the former, that would be a dramatic shift and will call into question the credibility of the Bureau and of the president as well.