President Bill Clinton fired William Sessions on July 19, 1993
The public response and circumstances were quite different
The sharp outcry over President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey has spurred a national digital history lesson about the dramatic move.
One fun fact is this: Trump isn’t the first president to can an FBI director. But the public reaction – and the circumstances – surrounding the two cases couldn’t be more different.
Nearly a quarter-century ago, President Bill Clinton fired FBI Director William Sessions. It was July 19, 1993, and Clinton was the first President to sack an official from that post.
Harking back to that moment, some Trump backers and Clinton critics today are asking: Why wasn’t there the same level of outrage toward Clinton, a Democrat, as there is to Trump, a Republican?
Anger in the social media age
There was, in fact, some anger toward and disapproval of Clinton for his move. Critics suggested that sidelining Sessions (no relation to Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions), who’d been appointed by Republican President Ronald Reagan, was a political power play by the new Commander In Chief.
But the displeasure simmered during a relatively slow-moving era in news, when newspapers, TV and radio reigned. The immediacy of digital news and social media, where much angst toward Trump is erupting, had not yet become a part of daily life.
Also, the reasons for the firings differ.
Top Russia investigator canned
Trump fired the man responsible for the bureau’s investigation into whether members of his own campaign team colluded with Russia in its interference in last year’s election.
The Trump administration says Comey was dismissed because of his handling of the investigation into Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s email server. Democrats say it’s because Comey was getting too close to the White House with his Russia probe.
On this point, there’s yet another moment from American history that is being dredged up from the history books: President Richard Nixon’s refusal to hand over audio tapes during the Watergate investigation.
That spawned the standoff known as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” which led to the resignations of Nixon’s attorney general and deputy attorney general and the firing of Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor for Watergate.
Financial violations alleged
By contrast, Clinton fired Sessions after the issuance of a report that alleged ethical problems including “evading taxes and refusing to cooperate with an investigation of a home mortgage loan,” The New York Times reported.
Leading the FBI
- The FBI director is appointed by the President by and with the advice and consent of the Senate. The position has a fixed 10-year term.
The report was completed by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility during the George H.W. Bush administration, just before Clinton’s inauguration.
Clinton told reporters there had been “serious questions” about Sessions’ “conduct and the leadership.” He asked his attorney general, Janet Reno, to review Sessions’ tenure and the situation at the FBI.
“She has reported to me in no uncertain terms that he can no longer effectively lead the Bureau and law enforcement community,” Clinton said.
Sessions, a former federal judge, went on to work with citizen groups considering various aspects of public policy.