Lawfare

Trump’s Lies About James Comey Keep Unraveling

The president said his first FBI director lost the confidence of the rank-and-file. Newly released government documents prove otherwise.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 22: U.S. President Donald Trump (C) shakes hands with James Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), during an Inaugural Law Enforcement Officers and First Responders Reception in the Blue Room of the White House on January 22, 2017 in Washington, DC. Trump today mocked protesters who gathered for large demonstrations across the U.S. and the world on Saturday to signal discontent with his leadership, but later offered a more conciliatory tone, saying he recognized such marches as a "hallmark of our democracy." (Photo by Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 22: U.S. President Donald Trump (C) shakes hands with James Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), during an Inaugural Law Enforcement Officers and First Responders Reception in the Blue Room of the White House on January 22, 2017 in Washington, DC. Trump today mocked protesters who gathered for large demonstrations across the U.S. and the world on Saturday to signal discontent with his leadership, but later offered a more conciliatory tone, saying he recognized such marches as a "hallmark of our democracy." (Photo by Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images)

Following the firing of FBI Director James Comey, the White House claimed that it wasn’t only the president who had lost confidence in Comey but the rank and file of the FBI as well.

Whether this attack on Comey was accurate or not matters for reasons that are broader than defending Comey’s legacy. President Donald Trump and his staff put this claim forward as a primary reason for and defense of his firing of Comey — despite other statements that indicated that the firing had more to do with his anger about the Russia investigation. Evidence undercutting the notion of staffwide dissatisfaction would not merely implicate Trump in a smear of Comey; it would further suggest that this talking point was a pretext intended to cover up some other motive.

In June, one of us set out to determine whether any data existed to support or refute the White House’s claims. Ben posited that FBI email correspondence to staff following Comey’s firing, as well as employee satisfaction survey data, would reveal whether there was any basis for the White House’s claims. So he submitted a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for the data.

Apparently others were thinking along the same lines. Some of that employee survey data has now been released, and, lo and behold, it suggests overwhelming support among the rank and file for former Director Comey. The release came in response to a New York Times FOIA request, and we are still waiting for a response to Ben’s broader inquiry, which should shed further light on the subject.

But based on this release alone, we can say pretty definitively: The White House was lying.

The day after Comey’s dismissal, then-Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said:

The president, over the last several months, lost confidence in Director Comey. The [Justice Department] 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.

At the time, a reporter challenged Sanders’s claim, reading her a quote from a special agent in the FBI who asserted, “The vast majority of the bureau is in favor of Director Comey. This is a total shock. This is not supposed to happen. The real losers here are 20,000 front-line people in the organization because they lost the only guy working here in the past 15 years who actually cared about them.” Sanders replied, “Look, we’ve heard from countless members of the FBI that say very different things.”

The next day, Sanders doubled down by claiming that she had personally “heard from countless members of the FBI that are grateful and thankful for the president’s decision.” Underscoring the apparent extent of dislike for Comey at the bureau, Sanders said, “I certainly heard from a large number of individuals — and that’s just myself — and I don’t even know that many people in the FBI.”

Trump also pushed the line that Comey had lost the confidence of the rank and file, telling NBC’s Lester Holt that the FBI was in a state of 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,” he said.

Even as the White House said these things, evidence to the contrary was pouring out of the bureau. After the firing, some FBI agents reportedly changed their social media profile pictures to images of Comey in a display of support typically shown to colleagues killed in the line of duty. Pictures later emerged from FBI Family Day of employees wearing T-shirts that read “#ComeyIsMyHomey.”

Less than 48 hours after Comey’s firing, FBI Acting Director Andrew McCabe contradicted the White House’s claims in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI and still does to this day,” he said.

McCabe’s assessment was borne out on op-ed pages and in statements by individual FBI agents and FBI alumni. Joshua Campbell, an FBI agent and former special assistant to Comey, wrote powerfully of his “servant leadership,” a “legacy of leadership and service [that] will permeate our great institution for generations to come,” and of the “sadness, anger and confusion” that swept the FBI upon his firing. On Lawfare, Nora Ellingsen, a former FBI counterterrorism analyst, wrote 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.”

Comey himself addressed the White House’s accusations directly in his congressional testimony the following month, saying that after his unceremonious firing, “the administration then chose to defame [him] and more importantly the FBI, by saying the organization was poorly led.” Comey was blunt: “Those were lies, plain and simple.”

The annual survey numbers show that Comey was right. In order to understand the data, consider the scoring criteria. A score of less than 3 indicates “potential areas of concern which could worsen if not addressed”; a score between 3 and 3.8 indicates “positive feedback in these areas with potential for improvement”; and a score between 3.81 and 5 “indicates success in those areas.”

So how did Comey do?

When queried on level of respect for FBI senior executives, including the director, the average scores in FBI field offices — that is, among “rank and file” FBI employees — were 3.88 in 2014, 4.19 in 2015, 4.25 in 2016, and 3.97 in 2017. When asked whether the FBI’s senior executives, including the director, maintain high standards of honesty and integrity, the average scores in FBI field offices were 3.88 in 2014, 4.04 in 2015, 4.1 in 2016, and 3.96 in 2017. In other words, confidence in senior FBI leadership remained solidly in the “indicates success in those areas” category.

On his personal evaluation, Comey was scored on 72 distinct criteria. He scored above a 4 on 68 of them. He scored above a 4.5 on 33 indicators. In other words, confidence in senior FBI leadership remained solidly in the “indicates success in those areas” category. These aren’t the numbers of someone struggling to control an agency in turmoil.

In 2016, employees evaluating the statement “I’m on board with the Director’s vision and ideas” gave an average of 4.51. In 2017, when asked to evaluate the statement “I am inspired by the Director’s vision and leadership,” the average score was 4.16.

In 2017, in evaluations of the director by his immediate staff, they rated the statement “I have trust and confidence in this person as a leader” at 4.47. From 2015 to 2017, Comey attained high scores in a dozen categories related to his integrity, fairness, and representation of the FBI. The data does reflect some of the controversy that marked the end of Comey’s tenure. In 2015 and 2016, employees rated Comey at 4.6 and 4.79 respectively for “acknowledges when he or she has made a mistake.” In 2017, following criticism of Comey’s public comments on the Hillary Clinton email investigation, his staff gave him a 4.02.

Of course, the survey could mask substantial pockets of discontent — those “countless” individuals Sanders claims spoke to her against Comey and in support of Trump’s actions. The rest of the data Ben requested in his FOIA will shed additional light on the matter.

But these numbers clearly indicate that it is worth asking the newly minted press secretary to revisit her statements from back in May. Can she be more specific on whom she spoke to and when? Might the White House now admit that the president formed a dramatically mistaken impression of the state of morale at the FBI under Comey’s leadership — or that the state of morale actually had nothing to do with his action against the director at all? And is the president prepared to go on the record to correct his attacks on Comey in light of the evidence they were false?

Or perhaps the answers are too obvious to even bother asking.

Photo credit: ANDREW HARRER-POOL/Getty Images

Susan Hennessey is managing editor of Lawfare.

Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare.

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