Criminal Justice & the Rule of Law

'I Hope This Is an Instance of Fake News': FBI Messages Show the Bureau's Real Reaction to Trump Firing James Comey

Nora Ellingsen, Quinta Jurecic, Sabrina McCubbin, Shannon Togawa Mercer, Benjamin Wittes
Monday, February 5, 2018, 8:24 AM

When President Trump fired James Comey as FBI director last May, the special agent in charge of the Detroit field office, David Gelios, wrote an email to his staff:

Then-FBI Director James Comey meets with North Dakotan state, local, and tribal leaders in 2016 (FBI)

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When President Trump fired James Comey as FBI director last May, the special agent in charge of the Detroit field office, David Gelios, wrote an email to his staff:

I just saw CNN reporting that Director Comey has been fired by President Trump. I have no notification from HQ of any such thing. If I receive any information from HQ, I will advise. I’d ask all to stand by for clarification of this reporting. I am only sending this because I want everyone to know I have received no HQ confirmation of the reporting. I hope this is an instance of fake news.

In the Knoxville field office, Special Agent in Charge Renae McDermott wrote to the staff she leads: “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!!! . . . He truly made us better when we needed it the most.”

The following day, in an email with the subject line “Follow up with your squads,” she followed up: “I need for all of you to make sure our/your folks are doing OK. Check with them today, tomorrow ….you get the idea.”

McDermott sent that latter email as the White House was launching its public broadside against Comey’s performance. In a May 10 press conference, the same day McDermott was asking her staff to make sure one another were “doing OK,” then-Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed that the president had “lost confidence in Director Comey” and that “the rank and file of the FBI had lost confidence in their director.” She stated that the president had “had countless conversations with members from within the FBI” in the course of making his decision to fire Comey. The following day, Sanders stated that she personally had “heard from countless members of the FBI that are grateful and thankful for the president’s decision” and that the president believed “Director Comey was not up to the task...that he wasn’t the right person in the job. [Trump] wanted somebody that could bring credibility back to the FBI.”

Trump himself blasted Comey too, stating in an interview that the former director was "a showboat. He's a grandstander" and that the FBI "has been in 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." A few days later, the New York Times reported that Trump had told Russian officials visiting him in the Oval Office the day after Comey’s firing that Comey was a “nut job.”

Over the next few days, a wealth of evidence emerged to suggest that Trump and Sanders were playing fast and loose with the truth. But we now have the documents to prove that decisively. Their disclosure was not a leak but an authorized action by the FBI, which released to us under the Freedom of Information Act more than 100 pages of leadership communications to staff dealing with the firing. This material tells a dramatic story about the FBI’s reaction to the Comey firing—but it is neither a story of gratitude to the president nor a story of an organization in turmoil relieved by a much-needed leadership transition.

Within a few days of the firing, both current and former FBI officials began pushing back against the White House’s claims. Then-Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, testifying before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said that Comey “enjoyed broad support within the FBI" and that “the vast majority of employees enjoyed a deep and positive connection to Director Comey.”

Here at Lawfare, Nora Ellingsen—who served as a counterterrorism analyst at the FBI for several years—talked with roughly 20 of her former colleagues. She characterized the opinion of Comey among the FBI’s rank and file as almost universally positive. “Nearly everyone loved him,” she wrote, and the “degree of consensus on this point ... has been incredible.” She went on: “All of the people I talked to described having the same reaction when they heard that the director had been fired: complete shock, followed by deep sadness.”

The president of the FBI Agents Association, Thomas O'Connor, called Comey’s firing a "gut punch.”

Resolving the inconsistency between the White House statements and accounts from within the bureau seemed like a good job for the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). When the head of an agency is abruptly fired, managers have to inform their teams, and those messages can speak volumes about the mood at the agency. As Benjamin Wittes wrote at the time he filed the FOIA requests:

After reading Ellingsen's piece, a thought occurred to me: this is a factual dispute with a large body of objective evidence behind it. When you decapitate an organization like the FBI, managers have to tell their staffs, after all. They do this, I imagine, by writing an email to their staffs. In an organization "in turmoil," one run by a "nut job," in whom the rank and file have "lost confidence," one might expect such an email to have a celebratory flavor, to talk about how the long national nightmare is over, say, or how there's a great opportunity to restore sanity to the organization. On the other hand, when a beloved leader is removed by a President in what is seen as an attack on the institution, one might expect an email with a very different tone. The FBI has lots of managers who will have had to send emails to their staffs.

On June 22, 2017, Wittes made four FOIA requests. One of them sought communications to the workforce from the senior FBI leadership regarding Comey’s firing. Another sought communications on the topic from all the assistant directors and special agents in charge at the FBI’s many components and field offices to their respective teams. When the FBI did not respond in a timely manner, Wittes sued—represented by the folks at Protect Democracy—stating that his purpose was “to show conclusively that President Trump and his White House staff are lying about career federal law enforcement officers, their actions, and their attitudes”:

Who knows? Perhaps these documents will reveal an agency in turmoil, one whose rank and file had lost confidence in their director, one brimming with gratitude to President Trump for his decisive action in removing the "nut job." But don't hold your breath for a lot of "Ding Dong, The Witch is Dead" subject lines. I believe these documents, when the Bureau is finally forced to release them, will show that the White House's claims have been bald-faced lies—that Ellingsen was right about the attitudes of her former colleagues towards Comey, that McCabe was courageously telling the truth on the subject in his congressional testimony, and that the Bureau was not in turmoil before Comey's removal but reacted with shock to it.

Over the weekend, we received 103 pages of records responsive to Wittes’s first two requests—messages from FBI leadership around the country and across the bureau regarding the firing of Director Comey. The bureau identified 116 pages of responsive material and withheld only 13 pages, so this material constitutes the overwhelming bulk of communications to staff on the subject of the firing.

What does it show? Simply put, it shows that Ellingsen nailed it when she described a reaction of “shock” and “profound sadness” at the removal of a beloved figure to whom the workforce was deeply attached. It also shows that no aspect of the White House’s statements about the bureau were accurate—and, indeed, that the White House engendered at least some resentment among the rank and file for whom it purported to speak. As Amy Hess, the special agent in charge in Louisville, put it: “On a personal note, I vehemently disagree with any negative assertions about the credibility of this institution or the people herein.”

Before detailing the story these documents tell, let’s pause a moment over the story they do not tell. They contain not a word that supports the notion that the FBI was in turmoil. They contain not a word that reflects gratitude to the president for removing a nut job. There is literally not a single sentence in any of these communications that reflects criticism of Comey’s leadership of the FBI. Not one special agent in charge describes Comey’s removal as some kind of opportunity for new leadership. And if any FBI official really got on the phone with Sanders to express gratitude or thanks “for the president’s decision,” nobody reported that to his or her staff.

Lest any of the following appear hagiographic on our part, here is a pdf of the entire FBI production we received. We urge people to read it for themselves and make their own judgments:

The first reaction the documents reflect is simple shock, confusion and disbelief. The words “unprecedented,” “tumultuous,” “shock” and “surprise” appear in a great many of the emails. Two days after the firing, the assistant director of the International Operations Division, almost certainly Carlos Cases (the author is identified in the documents only as “Carlos” but is identifiable from the division affiliated with the email address), described the period as “a whirlwind of shock at the suddenness of the departure of Director Comey and concern with what the future will hold.”

Most people at the bureau seem to have learned about the firing from television news. News of Comey’s firing broke in the 5 p.m. hour of May 9, and there had been no communication to the bureau before then. So an initial spree of emails involved office leadership simply letting their people know that they were seeking to find out what was going on. In Boston, Special Agent in Charge Harold Shaw wrote at 6:18 p.m.:

As you’ve likely heard within the media, President Trump has removed FBI Director Comey this afternoon. I’m actively working to get any additional information, and will immediately pass to keep you updated.

Our mission continues and we’ll deal with the unexpected change and eventual transition.

Wish I had more to share at this point. Once I get anything new, will update accordingly.

In Charlotte, Shaw’s counterpart, John Strong, wrote simply: “According the the news, Director Comey has resigned. That’s all I know.” In Dallas, Erik Jackson notified his staff at 5:21 p.m. that “The media is reporting that Director Comey has been fired. I have not received any confirmation of such from FBI Headquarters. As more information becomes available, I will advise Dallas of such.”

At 7:30 p.m., the suddenly new acting director, Andrew McCabe, held a conference call for FBI management in which he provided guidance and instructions. The mood, according to an email from Douglas Lindquist, assistant director for the Criminal Justice Information Services Division, was “somber.” McCabe first gave a chronology of what had taken place: At 5:30 p.m., he was called into a meeting at the Justice Department in which he was informed that Trump had chosen to remove Comey and was asked if he would stay on as acting director. Presumably, McCabe agreed. (The bulk of the emails describe McCabe as having met with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, but one, from Special Agent Hess in Louisville, says that McCabe met with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.) McCabe then received a phone call from Trump confirming his appointment.

McCabe then asked FBI management on the conference call to emphasize the continuity and strength of the bureau’s identity to their subordinates: The FBI mission remains the same, he said, and neither has the bureau’s responsibility to “protect the American people and uphold the Constitution.” (Several of the special agents in charge write out this phrase verbatim.) According to multiple emails, McCabe also seems to have emphasized the FBI’s role as a stable, calming force in turbulent times—even when that turbulence involves the bureau itself. He made clear that all FBI employees should refrain from public statements on Comey’s dismissal.

The FBI special agents in charge proved quite disciplined in following McCabe’s instructions and communicating the message to their staffs. The overwhelming bulk of the emails sent out are consistent with the acting director’s message. But even in carrying out McCabe’s instructions, FBI management allowed a certain amount of emotional expression to creep in. In a fashion fully consistent with Ellingsen’s reporting at the time, that expression quite consistently reflects deep sadness and affection for Comey.

Even McCabe allowed himself some emotional expression in a communication, dated May 12, which was made public earlier. Thank you for continuing to do the great work of this organization. Thank you for doing it professionally, competently, and independently, despite the fact that we are still trying to adjust to an FBI without Director Comey. We all miss him. And I know that he misses us,” he wrote. “So please—hang in there. As men and women of the FBI, we are at our best when times are tough. Please stay focused on the mission, keep doing great work, be good to each other and we will get through this together.”

David Schlendorf, the assistant director for the Human Resources Division, wrote on May 12 in circulating Comey’s farewell message to the workforce, “You will not be surprised by the eloquence and grace of Director Comey, or by the genuineness of his message. He will be missed.” Schlendorf went on to say that the division should go on with its work “[i]n homage to Director Comey” and carry out “his vision of getting the FBI fully staffed, increasing the diversity of our workforce and leadership team, turning the FBI into a world-class leadership factory, and truly taking care of all members of the FBI family.” He concluded: “If we do all of those things as Director Comey intended, then I know he would be proud of us. As you know, no one ever leaves the FBI family, and that will be very true of Director Comey.”

Kathryn Turman, assistant director for the Office for Victim Assistance, wrote to her staff, “Our hearts may be heavy but we must continue to do what we do best, which is to protect and serve the American people.” John Bennett, the special agent in charge in San Francisco, stated: “These events are hard to hear and harder to comprehend.” In St. Louis, Special Agent in Charge William Woods said that “I’m sure we are all feeling a wide range of emotions regarding the firing of Director Comey by President Trump.” And in Phoenix, Special Agent in Charge Michael DeLeon acknowledged that “everyone is surprised and we are certainly disappointed with the events surrounding this matter.” In an earlier email, he wrote: “We all felt the pain associated with the loss of a leader who was fully engaged and took great pride in the FBI organization and our employees. Simply stated, Director Comey will be missed.”

Comey had been at the Los Angeles field office when news of his firing broke—he reportedly learned of it from television news while giving a speech—and the emails from L.A. are particularly emotional. On May 15, Assistant Director in Charge Deirdre Fike wrote to her staff, “I will tell you that [Comey] truly felt the warmth from the employees as he walked out of that room. He will never forget that, nor the professionalism of the team who accompanied him back to the airport for his return to” Washington.

Many members of the L.A. office had apparently asked Fike how they could get messages to Comey, so Fike was planning to collect a book of letters to be delivered to the former director. The New Haven field office was apparently planning a similar gift. Fike ends her message: “Take care of yourselves and each other.”

The morning of the day he was fired, Comey had visited the bureau’s office in Jacksonville, Fla., before traveling to Los Angeles. Jacksonville Special Agent in Charge Charles Spencer noted the visit when he wrote to his staff the morning after the firing: “Director Comey … commented on what great work the Jacksonville Division was doing. Director Comey was a man of integrity and vision, he made a lasting impact on FBI leadership, diversity and our embracing of new technology.”

In Minneapolis, Special Agent in Charge Richard Thornton shared with his staff a small observation about the television coverage of Comey’s arrival at Los Angeles International Airport after his dismissal, “[b]ecause I think it truly speaks to the type of person Director Comey is.” While traveling, he wrote, Comey would often receive an escort provided by state and local law enforcement. “At the end of a visit to a city, prior to boarding his plane, Director Comey made it a practice to greet and thank each officer personally who was part of his police escort.” From television coverage of Comey’s arrival to LAX, “you could see him take the time to greet and speak to the motorcade escort police … In spite of him just finding out he had been fired as the Director, he demonstrated his appreciation and respect for the FBI’s law enforcement partners.”

After the president fired Comey there was some uncertainty about whether Comey, as a former FBI employee, would have to pay his way home from LAX or would be able to use the director’s plane. NBC recently reported that an irate Trump called McCabe a day after the firing asking why Comey had been permitted to return to Washington on an FBI plane. McCabe indicated that he hadn’t been consulted about the use of the plane but, had anyone asked, he would have approved the request. Thanks to one of these emails, we now have a small window into what went on at the FBI at the time.

On May 11, Gregory Cox, assistant director of the Critical Incident Response Group, emailed all of the Critical Incident Response Group thanking “all who were involved in efforts to bring home former Director Comey from Los Angeles on Tuesday evening.” The apparent defiance may be subtle, but it is unmistakable. Cox may not have known that his email dealt with a point the president had personally raised with the acting director, but he thanked his people for doing the right thing by Comey irrespective of politics he was surely aware of in a generic sense.

These emails are not the usual fare from special agents in charge and assistant directors. They are, to be sure, fairly measured in tone. Each assistant director and special agent in charge diligently communicates McCabe’s talking points to his or her employees. The messages about resilience are predictable enough, and there’s some tough love too—reminders that this is not the first transition the bureau has weathered and that everyone still has a job to do.

But the amount of warmth in the emails, both about Comey and for their people, is atypical of all-staff communications. These leaders operate at the highest level of the FBI; in a chain-of-command organization, they aren’t particularly accessible figures. But these emails, which were sent to entire divisions or field offices, are personal and intimate. Without overstating the matter or getting maudlin about it, it’s safe to say that these messages show leaders who are shaken and concerned. There is emotion in their voices and a deep concern for their people. One special agent in charge, who was out of state at a training, even offered to come back to the office if any of her people needed to talk to her.

The bottom line is that the documents tell a remarkably consistent story about the reaction inside the FBI to Comey’s firing, and it is not the story the White House has told about an agency in turmoil. It’s very much the story, rather, that McCabe told the Senate a few days after Comey’s dismissal. Someone, the documents show, stood before the American people the week of the firing and told the truth about the FBI. It just wasn’t Sarah Huckabee Sanders or Donald Trump.

Nora Ellingsen is a third-year student at Harvard Law School. Prior to graduate school, she spent five years working for the FBI's Counterterrorism Division. She graduated cum laude from Northwestern University with a B.A. in Psychology and Political Science.
Quinta Jurecic is a fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and a senior editor at Lawfare. She previously served as Lawfare's managing editor and as an editorial writer for the Washington Post.
Sabrina McCubbin graduated cum laude from Georgetown University Law Center, where she was the student editor-in-chief of the Journal of National Security Law and Policy. She has worked at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Center on Privacy and Technology. She earned her B.A. from McGill University in 2012.
Shannon Togawa Mercer is a senior associate at WilmerHale. Her practice focuses on complex global data protection, privacy, and cybersecurity matters. Ms. Togawa Mercer has extensive experience counseling clients on cross border data protection and privacy compliance as well as cyber incident response. She has practiced in London and Washington D.C. and previously served as Managing Editor and Senior Editor at Lawfare. Ms. Togawa Mercer also served as National Security and Law associate at the Hoover Institution.
Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books.

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