WASHINGTON — FBI agents are still reeling from Director James Comey’s unceremonious dismissal, their surprise at the manner of his ouster coupled with questions about who will next lead the bureau.
Many agents working in field offices across the country learned Tuesday about their director’s firing in much the same way he did: from news reports that flashed on television screens and buzzed on phones.
They privately described a day afterward spent processing the news, swapping praise about their former boss, and grappling with angst that Comey wasn’t given a chance to notify employees. Many saw him as a strong and supportive leader even if some believed he at times set the bureau on the wrong path. And many did not want to see him go, especially in the midst of the bureau’s investigation into whether President Donald Trump’s campaign had ties to Russia’s meddling in the election.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday that “countless” FBI employees had lost faith in Comey’s leadership. But the president of the FBI Agents Association, Thomas O’Connor, said he was known to be responsive to their concerns, and he called the firing a “gut punch.”
As part of the backup for the firing, the White House released a memo by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that blasted Comey’s handling of the probe into Hillary Clinton’s emails, namely his announcement that Clinton should not be charged before reopening the investigation days before voters went to the polls. That placed FBI agents in an uncomfortable position of having their historically apolitical work thrust into the center of a national election.
Retired FBI assistant director Ron Hosko said some agents believed Comey went too far.
“There are those voices inside, but I think he still enjoyed broad support and great respect by the workforce,” Hosko said.
Plainspoken speaking style
In New York, where Comey once headed the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan, agents were told stories about the former director, including how he used to call agents’ cellphones to congratulate them after finishing big cases, said a current official. Most current employees spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of restrictions about interactions with the media.
Across the FBI’s field offices, Comey was known for a plainspoken speaking style, peppering prepared remarks with avuncular advice, life lessons and humor. His casual demeanor — he’d regularly appear without a suit coat at freewheeling meetings with reporters, dabbled with Twitter and joked often about the toll the job had taken on his imposing height — served for many agents as a welcome change from the bureau’s historically buttoned-up culture.
At speaking appearances, he’d urge young agents to relish their lives outside the FBI, demanding that they take time to tend to their families — and to sleep. He’d say how he strove to be sensitive to the feelings of subordinates, aware that cross words or a bored look during a conversation could “hurt them in ways that would last.”
A farewell letter from Comey that circulated among friends and colleagues said he does not plan to dwell on the decision to fire him or on “the way it was executed.”
He said in the letter that though he’ll be fine, he will miss the FBI and its mission “deeply.” Comey said that “in times of turbulence, the American people should see the FBI as a rock of competence, honesty, and independence.”
He also said “it’s very hard to leave a group of people who are committed only to doing the right thing.”
The letter was posted online by CNN Wednesday night. A person who had seen the note confirmed to The Associated Press that the online version was authentic.
Andrew Arena, a former special agent in charge, said current FBI employees he spoke with as news of Comey’s ouster spread worried about the future of the bureau.
“Where are we going, and what’s our direction, and are we going to be politicized?” Arena said. “Uncertainty is not a good thing.”
As Justice Department leaders interviewed four candidates for the role of interim FBI director, some were anxious about whom Trump would select as Comey’s permanent replacement. Jack Eckenrode, a former special agent in charge of the FBI’s Philadelphia division, said the administration “will be hard-pressed to find someone who possesses his unique combination of personal qualities as well as his respect for the rule of law.”