FBI Director's firing sparks controversy

Why did President Trump fire James Comey? This activity briefly explores the news and the debate.   


On May 9, 2016, President Trump fired the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, James Comey. According to Trump, "he wasn't doing a good job, very simply." On Twitter, the President said that the FBI director had "lost the confidence of almost everyone in Washington, Republican and Democrat alike."
Trump's announcement was met with a storm of criticism and condemnation from Democrats, a few Republicans, and the media. 

Note: For further exploration of views on Comey's firing, see How the Right and Left Reacted to Comey's Firing (New York Times.)



1. Which of these is not a job of the FBI?
a)  To spy on U.S. enemies abroad
b)  To make sure voters elect the right person for president
c)  To find foreign spies in the U.S.
d)  To investigate civil rights violations
e)  To provide information to police departments
Answer:  a, b

2.  True or False
James Comey is the first ever FBI director to be fired.
Answer: False. President Clinton fired William Sessions in 1993 for malfeasance in office.

3.  True or False

In 1973, President Richard Nixon ordered the firing of Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor investigating the break-in of the Democratic National Committee’s offices at the Watergate Hotel. The "Watergate scandal" led to Nixon’s resignation in 1974. 

Answer:  True. Some people have compared Nixon’s firing of Cox to Trump’s firing of FBI director Comey. Others say the comparison is not a good one.  (See Politifact for more.)


Student Reading: Why did Trump fire Comey?

Spokespeople for the Trump administration said that FBI Director James Comey had been fired on the recommendation of the Justice Department.

They pointed to a letter from Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. In the letter, Rosenstein laid out a series of mistakes and missteps Comey made in relation to the FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails during the 2016 presidential campaign.  (See the Washington Post for this letter and other documents related to Comey’s dismissal.)
Trump’s aides also argued that:

  • The President had been dissatisfied with Comey for months
  • The President has absolute authority to fire employees in the executive department
  • Democrats had called for Comey’s firing themselves in relation to the FBI Director’s handling of the investigation into Clinton’s emails

Democrats rejected the claim that Trump had fired Comey because of the Clinton emails inquiry. They noted that Trump had previously praised Comey for his handling of this issue.
Instead, Democrats and many in the media accused Trump of firing Comey because he was leading the FBI’s investigation into the Russian interference into the presidential election, including the possibility that the Trump campaign had colluded with the Russians.
The Democrats see the timing of Comey's dismissal as evidence that the Russia probe was the real reason Trump fired him. Their arguments include:

  • James Comey had refused to rule out the President as a subject of investigation.
  • Comey reportedly had asked for significantly more staff and resources for the Russia investigation three days before he was fired.
  • If the Clinton emails inquiry were the reason to fire Comey, why did the Trump administration wait three months?
  • White House sources have told journalists that President Trump had been in a rage over the continuing Russia investigation, and especially Comey's role in it.
  • The Senate investigation into Russian interference seemed to be picking up steam. Ex-National Security Advisor Mike Flynn and James Comey were scheduled to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The reaction to Comey’s firing appears to have caught the White House by surprise. Not only the Democrats, but a handful of Republican lawmakers have expressed skepticism over Trump’s explanation for firing the FBI director.

The FBI plays a crucial role in the Russia investigation. The agency is not only conducting its own investigation, it serves as a resource for the Congressional committees that are doing their own probes. A new director who is close to President Trump probably would not stop the investigations, but could potentially restrict the resources needed for the investigations. The new director will face close scrutiny in the Senate confirmation hearings.
The Congressional Republicans, after some initial grumbling, have united in supporting President Trump. However, each new crack in their unity has the potential to threaten the big legislation that the Republican leaders envision (including repealing Obamacare and dramatically cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy).

Discussion Questions

1.  The U.S.’s first FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, served for 48 years and amassed extraordinary power during his reign. In order to prevent another director abusing his position, Congress limited the position to a single 10-year term in 1976. The intent was not only to limit the term, but also to insulate the director from partisan firing as a new president takes office. Given the potential for abuse of power, how independent do you think the Director of the FBI be? 

2.  There is no question that the President had the power to fire Comey. Why do you think there is such a fuss being made about the firing?

3.  The following is from the Los Angeles Times. How does the quote, which appeared before President Trump’s election, relate to James Comey’s dismissal?

Is the FBI director independent of the White House? Only in a manner of speaking. Successful directors are not tools of the president, and they understand that the FBI functions best when it maintains its distance from politics. Wise presidents understand the awful optics of meddling in law enforcement decisions and thus make no move to politicize the FBI. In the end, though, the FBI director serves at the president’s pleasure.

4. Critics of President Trump fear that Comey was fired in order to impede the investigation into Russian interference with the election. What do you think?

5. Following the political storm caused by Comey's firing, the White House (including the President) has put forward a constellation of arguments, conflicting statements and accusations. How should the media cover such conflicting statements?

6.  Is the Comey firing affair a distraction from more pressing issues such as healthcare, escalating wars, and climate change?