Many presidents have grumbled about FBI directors. At times, they have loathed or feared them. Rarely, though, have presidents gone ahead and fired the federal law enforcement chief whose very position is designed for maximum distance from raw politics.
The only other time it happened before President Donald Trump fired James Comey Tuesday was in 1993. The then-FBI director William Sessions was facing ethics complaints that led to his dismissal about halfway through what’s designed as a 10-year term.
“It’s a very independent position, for a reason,” Nancy Savage, executive director of the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI, noted in an interview Tuesday.
It’s also a position that past presidents have periodically struggled with, going back to the FBI’s powerful founding director, J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover served between the modern bureau’s founding in 1935 until his death in 1972, though some of the presidents he worked with fancied the possibility of replacing him.
Underscoring the inevitable conflicts that can pit the White House against the FBI, the director that President Bill Clinton appointed in 1993 to replace Sessions, Louis Freeh, in turn developed tense relations with the president’s team. Matters got so shaky that Freeh, himself a former special agent, turned in his White House pass.
“Whatever moral compass the president was consulting was leading him in the wrong direction,” Freeh subsequently wrote in a memoir, entitled “My FBI.” “His closets were full of skeletons just waiting to burst out."
The disdain was mutual. Freeh, though, also seemed all but untouchable as his special agents were participating in multiple investigations of various Clinton administration scandals and controversies. Firing him would have immediately resurrected memories of the infamous “Saturday Night Massacre” of 1973 in which President Richard Nixon demanded and eventually secured the dismissal of special prosecutor Archibald Cox.
Similar concerns about appearance were thought, by some, to protect Comey as well.
“Although the president has the power to remove an FBI director, the decision should not be taken lightly,” Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein acknowledged in a memo released Tuesday.
After Hoover had held his position for several decades, through a combination of competence, ruthlessness and bureaucratic wiles, Congress in 1968 established the FBI director’s post as a presidentially appointed position requiring Senate confirmation. In 1976, Congress added a 10-year limit to the job.
In theory, presidents can fire FBI directors for any reason at all. As a Congressional Research Service report noted in 2014, “there are no statutory conditions on the president’s authority to remove the FBI director.”
Practically speaking, though, presidents need to justify their actions, as happened in the firing of William Sessions.
President Ronald Reagan nominated Sessions as FBI director in 1987. At the time, Sessions was chief judge of the U.S. District Court of Western Texas. Though easily confirmed, Sessions sparked complaints that were investigated by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility.
The 161-page Office of Professional Responsibility report concluded that Sessions “participated in a sham arrangement designed to evade income taxes” and “improperly used government funds to install a fence at his residence,” among other matters.
Citing the “serious questions...about the conduct and the leadership of the director,” as well as the Office of Professional Responsibility report, Clinton dismissed Sessions in July 1993.
“I think more have not been fired because most presidents have possessed the good judgment to realize that Congress created a 10-year term to provide some insulation from politics and some independence from the presidency,” Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, said Tuesday night.