Donald Trump’s firing of the FBI director, James Comey, has left FBI agents shocked, angry and humiliated, with some former agents worried that the president has fundamentally compromised the bureau’s prized political neutrality.
Bobby Chacon, a former FBI agent who served in Los Angeles and New York and retired in 2014, compared the abrupt firing to “a punch in the stomach to agents”.
“I myself, and I would speak for a lot of agents, feel very disrespected by the administration and how this was handled,” he told the Guardian. Other former agents said the way Comey was fired was an “outrage” and said that the Trump administration’s approach “besmirches the reputation of the FBI”.
In defending the FBI director’s firing, the Trump administration has argued that agents on the street were ready to see Comey go.
“The rank and file of the FBI had lost confidence in their director,” deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at a White House press briefing Wednesday.
But former agents said the abrupt firing was shocking and disturbing.
Chacon said he had spoken to several agents who were with Comey on Tuesday in Los Angeles when he found out he had been fired from news reports blasting across the television monitors in the room where he was giving a speech.
“All the agents felt like the director should at least be called” to be informed of his firing, Chacon said. The way the news was delivered seemed “almost like a public embarrassment and humiliation”, Chacon said. “If it’s done to the director, by association, it’s done to the agents themselves.”
Whether or not agents liked Comey himself, “nobody deserves to be treated like that”, he said. “Agents will always do their investigations and conduct themselves professionally, [but] it may tend to make some agents less supportive of the administration.”
Several former FBI agents were more divided on the ultimate impact of Comey’s firing, with some confident that agents would keep doing their jobs, and others worried that the apparent political motivation of Trump’s choice would have a “chilling effect” on the bureau’s investigation of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election.
“I think it’s going to have a significant chilling effect,” said Michael Tabman, a former FBI agent who retired in 2007 and frequently comments in the media. “I believe this was a warning shot by the president to anybody who gets too close to the investigation.”
Another recently retired FBI agent, who served for 26 years, most recently in Philadelphia, said Comey’s firing was “unprecedented and very, very suspicious”.
“Although they’ve said publicly that they’re trying to restore faith in the FBI and the integrity of its leadership, it is, by all appearances, just the opposite,” he said.
“I don’t think there’s any way not to think that’s going to have a chilling effect on how that investigation is conducted.”
Other former agents said that the Russia investigation was “too politically visible” to kill, no matter who Trump appointed as the next FBI director.
“One thing that could happen is that the team doesn’t get all the support they need,” said Jeffrey Ringel, the director at the Soufan Group, a security consultancy, who spent 21 years in the FBI, mostly in the New York field office. “I think Director Comey was very supportive of the investigation … If the new director wanted to crush the investigation, he might not give that same level of support.”
Chacon, the former Los Angeles and New York agent, said that Comey’s ouster would not deter FBI agents from pushing ahead with the Russia inquiry.
“Whether or not it’s an attempt to influence the investigation, I can tell you almost categorically that it will not influence the investigation,” Chacon said. “If this was done for that reason, if people in the White House think that, they’re mistaken.”
“This is a complex investigation. On this investigative team there are senior members of the FBI and experienced people from the Department of Justice. It’s not like you can walk into one agent’s office and say, ‘Bury this thing.’ There’s too many people involved.”
The FBI Agents Association, an organization that represents about 13,000 active and former FBI agents, did not publicly condemn Comey’s firing, but praised his record of service and said in a statement that “a change in FBI leadership of this magnitude must be handled carefully”.
In an Tuesday night interview with National Public Radio, Thomas O’Connor, the association’s president, said he wanted to “stay apolitical” but that “we believed in Director Comey’s leadership”.
“I think everyone is pretty appalled at how this was handled,” said Nancy Savage, the executive director of the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI, an organization that represents about 7,500 former and 1,000 active-duty agents.
Savage noted that the justice department’s office of the inspector general was still conducting an active investigation into Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation.
“We have no IG report, and he’s being summarily dismissed,” she said.
That Comey learned of his firing from media reports was “beyond the pale”, she said.
Several former agents said that they had personally disapproved of how Comey had handled the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s private email server, but that his bad choices regarding the investigation did not make his firing any less shocking.
The former Philadelphia agent said he had spoken to about a dozen current and former agents since last night, and that he had had not spoken to anyone “who thinks firing Jim Comey is a good idea”.
“You’re firing the guy literally at a moment’s notice with no replacement to name. What was the big emergency? Why did it have to be now? Why couldn’t it wait until they had someone picked and they had an orderly transition of leadership?
“The president has a real, longstanding reputation for only appointing people who are loyal to him and do what he wants. That’s not the role of the FBI or the FBI director.
“The rule of law has to prevail, not the rule of whim.”
Ringel, of the Soufan Group, said that the current agents he had talked to “are surprisingly not super-upset. They just said it was business as usual and they are continuing to move on.”
But the criticism of Comey from the Trump administration continued to rankle some, he said.
“I think they are also upset with the comments made by both the attorney general and the president who are attacking the integrity of Comey which is retrospect attacks the integrity of the FBI.”
A Justice official confirmed that Attorney General Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had interviewed four candidates to serve as Comey’s interim replacement on Wednesday.
Three were current FBI insiders: Adam Lee, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Richmond, Virginia division; Michael Anderson, the special agent in charge of the Chicago division, and Paul Abbate, the executive assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal, Cyber, Response and Services Branch.
One, William Evanina, is currently the directorof the National Counterintelligence and Security Center. Evanina previously served for more than twenty years in the FBI.
The attorney general and deputy attorney general also met Tuesday with acting FBI director Andrew McCabe, who is also being considered for the job, the official said.
Julian Borger contributed reporting