The dramatic firing of FBI director James Comey has got the US president in a soup already. It is as much because the firing came in the midst of an ongoing probe into possible Russian meddling in the last US presidential election. It is also because firing of the FBI director does not happen every day. It has happened only twice in last 109 years.
The one other FBI director fired in U.S. history was William Sessions, who was fired by president Bill Clinton in 1993. According to the Congressional Research Service, “There are no statutory conditions on the president’s authority to remove the FBI Director. Since 1972, one director has been removed by the president.” The low number is a little misleading because one FBI director had a stranglehold on the position for decades. J. Edgar Hoover was FBI director for 48 years until 1972. According to the FBI, there have only been 18 directors in the nation’s history, but the position has only been a presidential appointment since 1968, according to the Congressional Research Service.
The current process dates from 1968, when the FBI director was first established as a presidentially appointed position requiring Senate confirmation, the service reports. Since 1972, seven nominations for FBI director have been confirmed, and two other nominations have been withdrawn. There are even fewer U.S. FBI directors overall if you exclude acting directors. The modern procedures for firing and appointing FBI directors date to Hoover’s leaving. After Hoover, Robert Mueller served the longest. He held office for 12 years, even receiving an extension of his term through legislation.
In modern times, though, FBI directors serve 10-year terms, and only Clinton – and now Trump – has chosen to fire one. Here is what is sort of interesting in juxtaposition: Clinton was perceived as firing Sessions in part because he was a Republican holdover from the Reagan administration. When Bill Clinton took office in January, 1993, his FBI director was William S. Sessions, serving an appointment made by Ronald Reagan at the time of the Iran-Contra affair. Making it clear that the new president did not want the Republican FBI director in his administration, Clinton’s newly appointed attorney general, Janet Reno, quietly pressured Sessions to resign.
It was not only a matter of politics though. The New York Times reported at the time that Sessions “had stubbornly rejected an Administration ultimatum to resign six months after a harsh internal ethics report on his conduct”. The Times reported that there were many problems. “Mr. Sessions arrived as a respected judge from San Antonio, but after five and a half years in office, he leaves with his star fallen, his agency adrift and his support at the FBI all but drained away. He served under four attorneys general, and each complained privately about his absentee management style, his frequent traveling — often to unimportant events — and his inability to take command,” the newspaper reported in 1993.
The FBI says in a history of FBI directors that the FBI director has answered directly to the attorney general since the 1920s. Under the Omnibus Crime Control Act and Safe Streets Act of 1968, Public Law 90-3351, the director is appointed by the U.S. President and confirmed by the Senate. On October 15, 1976, in reaction to the extraordinary 48-year term of J. Edgar Hoover, Congress passed Public Law 94-503, limiting the FBI director to a single term of no longer than 10 years. Comey has said previously he was a Republican. He served in the Bush administration, and then he served in Obama’s. He angered some Democrats with his pre-election lastminute announcement to Congress that the FBI was reopening the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, an investigation that went nowhere. Then, he angered some Republicans by telling Congress the FBI was investigating potential Trump campaign collusion with Russian interference into the 2016 presidential election, an investigation that, so far, has produced no charges.
Trump fired Comey at the recommendation of both attorney general Jeff Sessions and from deputy attorney general Rod J. Rosenstein and wrote Comey that he believed the FBI director was “not able to effectively lead the Bureau”. Rosenstein said in a letter that Comey should be fired because of the way he handled the Hillary Clinton email case. Sessions’ letter says that he agrees with what Rosenstein said and that “a fresh start is needed at the leadership of the FBI”. As with Trump, Bill Clinton had said he was firing Sessions at the recommendation of his Attorney General Reno.