There’s Little Evidence to Back White House Claim of Poor Morale at FBI
Fired FBI Director James Comey had broad support among the rank and file, surveys and employee groups say.
With official Washington consumed by President Trump’s surprise firing of FBI Director James Comey, the top oversight chairman in the Republican-controlled House on Wednesday asked the Justice Department inspector general to add the matter to an ongoing investigation of the FBI’s conduct during the 2016 election.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, wrote to Justice’s independent watchdog Michael Horowitz that “you stated previously that your work includes an examination of whether Comey's public communications and notifications to Congress about the [Hillary] Clinton investigation comported with Justice Department and FBI policies and procedures. You separately stated ‘if circumstances warrant, the OIG will consider including other issues that may arise during the course of the review.’ The recommendation to remove Comey indeed warrants such consideration.”
The Justice IG's office declined to comment on the status of the probe, but it's clear the watchdog will have his hands full.
Over the past 24 hours, the Trump White House has issued a shifting narrative of how and why Comey was fired, including assertions that he had alienated employees at the FBI—an assertion flatly denied by acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe on Thursday and not borne out by recent surveys.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders raised eyebrows on Wednesday when she told reporters: “The president, over the last several months, lost confidence in Director Comey. The DOJ lost confidence in Director Comey. Bipartisan members of Congress made it clear that they had lost confidence in Director Comey. And most importantly, the rank and file of the FBI had lost confidence in their director.”
On Thursday, Trump himself doubled down on that view, telling NBC News Anchor Lester Holt that Comey was “a showboat, he's grandstander, the FBI has been in turmoil . . . 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.”
Even as Trump spoke, however, McCabe contradicted him during an appearance at the Senate Intelligence Committee. “I can tell you that I hold Director Comey in the absolute highest regard,” McCabe said. “I have the highest respect for his considerable abilities and his integrity and it has been the greatest privilege and honor of my professional life to work with him,” adding that “Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI and still does to this day.”
Sanders on Thursday declined to back off, telling reporters, “My own personal experience is that I’ve heard from countless members of the FBI saying that they’re glad Comey’s gone,” referring to text messages and emails over the past 24 hours.
The Trump claim of poor morale at FBI on Wednesday brought a slew of news articles in which current and former FBI agents—many anonymously—heaped praise on Comey—whom Trump dismissed on Tuesday in a memo to headquarters while the director was making a speech in Los Angeles. “His support within the rank and file of the FBI is overwhelming,” Thomas O'Connor, an FBI special agent who is president of the Alexandria, Va.-based FBI Agents Association, told Politico.
That group of 13,000 active and former agents on Tuesday issued a statement saying Comey “understood the centrality of the agent to the bureau's mission, recognizing that agents put their lives on the line every day. His focus was to ensure that the bureau’s investigations complied with the law and the Constitution, and that agents performed their mission with integrity and professionalism.”
Similar defenses came from Nancy Savage, the executive director of the 8,500-member Quantico, Va.,-based Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI who has 34 years experience and friends still on duty at bureau headquarters. “He’s well respected, from my contacts, well liked, and I think the agents especially enjoy the fact that he listens to their investigative concerns and tries to find good solutions,” she told Government Executive. “With that big of an organization, you can’t please everyone,” she added. “People probably hear from the disgruntled more than from those who put their nose to the grindstone.”
Many in the FBI community found the manner in which Trump fired Comey, who learned about his dismissal from a television broadcast while he was attending a Bureau function in California, “visually appalling,” Savage said. “And one question that should be asked is why he fired Comey before release of the conclusions of the [in-progress] inspector general’s report” on Clinton’s emails and the 2016 election, which, Savage added, will address not just the FBI but Justice Department conduct.
Comey’s FBI performed relatively well in the Office of Personnel Management’s annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, and the related “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” study by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Its overall index score based on such issues as effective leadership, teamwork and innovation rose before leveling off last year. In 2016, the FBI ranked 90th out of 305 agencies, and fourth of 15 law enforcement agencies.
In a separate study of data from the 2015 survey, the FBI ranked top among law enforcement agencies for communication on employee responses and on such issues as work-life balance, reasonable workloads and having enough resources.
“The bureau’s director, James Comey, has made a point of visiting all 56 field offices to talk to employees, assess morale and leadership, and he has prioritized communication both at headquarters and at the field offices nationwide,” wrote the partnership and analysts at Deloitte.
“Each leader also is rated on communication through FBI internal employee surveys. In contrast, less than one-third of the employees at the Secret Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection are satisfied with the communication they receive from their leadership.”
Comey’s tenure from September 2013 to May 2017 was marked by a “culture of humility” in which he strived to encourage staff to admit mistakes and hear out whistleblowers. He was forced to deal with a rise in terrorism threats made easier by encrypted digital media. And he managed to win budget hikes and attract thousands of new employees. He also defended the nonpartisan core values of the FBI amid the political firestorms of 2016 prompted both by the Clinton private email server probe and Trump’s alleged ties to Russians who may have interfered in the U.S. election.
“We’re not on anybody’s side, ever,” he said in a talk to the Intelligence and National Security Alliance in March. “It would be the death of the FBI if we started considering [a decision’s] impact in a political sense.”
Here, in full, is the resignation letter Comey sent out on Wednesday:
I have said to you before that, in times of turbulence, the American people should see the FBI as a rock of competence, honesty, and independence.
What makes leaving the FBI hard is the nature and quality of its people, who together make it that rock for America.
It is very hard to leave a group of people who are committed only to doing the right thing.
My hope is that you will continue to live our values and the mission of protecting the American people and upholding the Constitution.
If you do that, you too will be sad when you leave, and the American people will be safer.
Working with you has been one of the great joys of my life.
Thank you for that gift.