FBI leaders expressed shock and sadness in internal messages in the immediate aftermath of James Comey’s firing last spring, even as the White House attempted to portray a bureau in crisis, newly disclosed emails show.
“Our hearts may be heavy but we must continue to do what we do best,” the head of the bureau’s Office for Victims Assistance wrote to her department.
“I hope this is an instance of fake news,” the top agent in the Detroit told his staff.
“We are not going to let this defeat us and like I said it will only make us stronger,” the chief in the Knoxville field office said to her team. “Unexpected news such as this is hard to understand but I know you all know our Director stood for what is right and what is true!!!”
The emails, offering a window into the secretive law enforcement agency during an upheaval last May following President Donald Trump’s decision to fire Comey, were revealed as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought against the bureau by Ben Wittes, a friend of Comey’s and the editor of the legal affairs blog Lawfare.
Writing for the site on Monday, Wittes and his colleagues cited the emails as evidence that White House officials, including Trump and then-Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, were disingenuous when they claimed FBI agents had lost faith in Comey as a central part of the White House pretext to fire him.
“The President, over the last several months, lost confidence in Director Comey,” Sanders said at a May 10 news conference, the day after the firing. “And most importantly, the rank and file of the FBI had lost confidence in their director.”
As CNN reported at the time of Comey’s firing, reaction to it was not universal, with some in the agency resenting the political spotlight he had brought on the bureau and others voicing appreciation for his independence from both sides of the political aisle, especially with critical comments Trump made about the intelligence community during the campaign and early in his presidency, along with his efforts to streamline administrative processes.
Testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee two days after the firing, the bureau’s then-acting director, Andrew McCabe, echoed the sentiments in the emails.
“Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI and still does until this day,” McCabe said. “We are a large organization, we are 36,500 people across this country, across this globe. We have a diversity of opinions about many things, but I can confidently tell you that the majority – the vast majority of FBI employees enjoyed a deep and positive connection to Director Comey.”
The FBI over the weekend handed over 103 pages of documents responsive to Wittes’ FOIA requests, which sought messages from FBI leadership regarding the firing of Comey, according to Lawfare. The FBI had identified 116 responsive documents and withheld 13, so the material revealed Monday “constitutes the overwhelming bulk of communications to [FBI] staff on the subject of the firing,” Lawfare said.
In the emails, FBI officials wrote to their staff as media outlets broke the news of the firing. Many used the same words – “unprecedented,” “challenging,” “tumultuous” – to describe the state of events, and offered high praise for Comey, who had led the bureau since 2013.
While no correspondence from lower-level agents was included in the Lawfare report, the department and field office leaders in their emails describe a shared sense of loss.
“Many of you have inquired about how to get a message to Director Comey,” a top official in the Los Angeles field office wrote. “I have spoken to his staff that assured me any emails and letters sent to the Director’s Office will be collected and delivered to him. I also am going to steal an idea from the New Haven office who is putting together a book of letters to be delivered.”