James Comey has made history, but not in the way he would have wanted: In the 82-year history of the modern FBI, he’s only the second of the nation’s top law enforcement officials to be fired by a sitting president.
The first was FBI Director William Sessions, whom President Bill Clinton fired in 1993 amid allegations of ethics violations. Sessions (no relation to Trump’s embattled attorney general, Jeff Sessions) was just six years into his 10-year term, and the firing helped set the stage for what became years of tensions between Clinton and the FBI.
But Donald Trump isn’t Bill Clinton, and Jim Comey isn’t Bill Sessions. Clinton only fired the FBI chief after a several months-long investigation that concluded before Clinton even took office. That deep dive into Sessions’s actions resulted in a 161-page report chronicling, in meticulous detail, a pattern of alleged ethical violations. More importantly, Clinton — unlike Trump — wasn’t under active FBI investigation when he decided to oust Sessions.
By contrast, Trump has fired the man leading a criminal investigation into the president’s own campaign. The allegations — that the Trump team actively colluded with Russia to help Trump win the White House — couldn’t be weightier. Trump’s move could impede the FBI probe in the short term, but it’s almost certain to accelerate a process that could prematurely end his presidency.
“The FBI has gone after presidents before,” says Tim Weiner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and historian, pointing to the bureau’s probes of Richard Nixon during Watergate and Ronald Reagan during the Iran-Contra scandal. “But never ... has a president dismissed an FBI director when members of the president’s administration and members of the president’s campaign team were under investigation for colluding with a foreign power.”
Understanding why Trump’s move has sparked such an uproar means taking a closer look at the Sessions firing and its similarities to the Comey ouster — and, more importantly, its differences.
Donald Trump isn’t the first president to fire an FBI director
The year was 1993; the newly minted president was William Jefferson Clinton. (The country was months, even years, away from when Clinton himself would be under investigation for a real estate scandal in Arkansas and, later, lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky.)
The FBI director was William Sessions, a federal judge put in charge of the FBI by Ronald Reagan. Sessions was six years into his 10-year term, and he was a thorn in the side of at least two of the presidents he served — not because he was investigating them but because of his poor performance.
On January 19, 1993, the last day of the George H.W. Bush administration, the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) released a massive document detailing allegations of significant ethical lapses and questionable practices that were undermining Sessions’s ability to lead the FBI. There were so many examples of problematic, fireable behavior in the report that calls immediately came for Sessions to resign or be fired.
As the New York Times reported at the time:
The report found that Mr. Sessions had taken numerous free trips aboard F.B.I. aircraft to visits friends and relatives, often taking along his wife, Alice. The report, which was endorsed officially by Attorney General William P. Barr on his last day in office, detailed a litany of abuses. It is a lacerating portrayal of the director as an official who was in charge of enforcing the law but who seemed blasé about perceptions of his own conduct.
There was more: The report indicated Sessions had improperly given rides to non-official passengers in his government-funded vehicle — a punishable violation under FBI rules; that he had thwarted FBI efforts to look into allegations; that he had received a mortgage from a bank under what the investigators called a “sweet-heart deal”; and that he had “abused his security detail for personal purposes.”
The report concluded: “Our findings raise serious issues that only the President can resolve regarding whether Director Sessions can continue to enjoy the President’s full faith and confidence in his ability to properly conduct his office.”
As Clinton explained at the time of Sessions’s firing, under normal circumstances, a new Democratic president would want to avoid summarily firing an FBI chief selected by a Republican predecessor.
Indeed, Tim Naftali, a professor of history and public policy at New York University, told me Clinton later revealed in his memoir that he hoped Sessions would step down of his own volition.
That didn’t happen. Sessions called the report’s allegations “scurrilous attacks” and told the press he had “refused to voluntarily resign.” Clinton’s attorney general, Janet Reno, by then, had told the president there was no option but dismissal.
Reno was scathing in her assessment of Sessions in the letter she wrote to Clinton recommending Sessions be relieved of his duties. The FBI chief, she wrote, “had exhibited a serious deficiency in judgment involving matters contained in the [OPR] report and that he does not command the respect and confidence needed to lead the bureau and the law enforcement community in addressing the many issues facing law enforcement today."
Current Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein used similar language in his memo on Tuesday recommending that Trump fire Comey, stating, “Over the past year ... the F.B.l.’s reputation and credibility have suffered substantial damage, and it has affected the entire Department of Justice.”
Still, there is an enormous difference between these two stories: Bill Sessions, in Naftali’s words, “was not in the midst of a major investigation of the Clinton campaign and a foreign power.”
The Sessions dismissal, he says, “didn't smack of a potential obstruction of justice.” The Comey one does.
Clinton might have wanted to fire the next FBI chief, but he couldn’t
With Sessions out, Clinton installed Louis Freeh as the director of the FBI. He surely came to regret that.
Freeh, very early on, set his sights on investigating the Clintons — again and again.
He turned first to a morass of a story back in Arkansas, known as the Whitewater real estate scandal, which focused on whether then-Gov. Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary illegally benefited from personal investments, and dug into the origins of money used for Bill’s 1994 governor’s campaign. He also investigated alleged Chinese financial interference in the 1996 election campaign. Later the FBI also became tangled up in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
“Clinton couldn’t fire Louis Freeh — even though he wanted to — because Louis Freeh was investigating him,” Weiner says. “It would have been seen as an obstruction of justice.”
Both historians return again and again to that phrase: obstruction of justice. In 1993, there was no implication that the firing of William Sessions was improper. Firing him did not raise the specter that firing James Comey has raised today: the obstruction of an ongoing judicial investigation.
Some senators and Congress members did object at the time: Bob Dole, then the Senate minority leader (and later a GOP presidential candidate), worried it would set a bad precedent and potentially compromise the FBI.
This, however, was the minority opinion. Charles Schumer, then a member of the House, pointed out that Sessions had lost respect in the FBI, which “compromised” his leadership.
“In the case of William Sessions, you had a case of [misconduct] in office,” Wiener says. Comey, by contrast, was actively looking into “a sophisticated attack by the Kremlin on the 2016 election and ... whether Americans aided and abetted in that attack.”
And that is the most troubling thing of all. Trump isn’t the first president to fire an FBI chief. But he is the first to fire one who was investigating him and his administration. Comey isn’t the only one who has made history here.