Character witnesses

The people at Lawfare have a must-read for us: FBI messages circulated in the wake of Comey’s firing. They’re all the more convincing for the fact that the FBI didn’t send them to Lawfare voluntarily; Benjamin Wittes had to sue to get them to cough up.

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 , 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. , 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.”

Many suspected at the time that that was a pack of lies, but there weren’t a lot of FBI people running around confirming that for us. They’re not a burbly bunch.

Trump himself blasted Comey too, stating  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 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,  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.

There were some people contradicting the Trump-Sanders version – Andrew McCabe, Nora Ellingsen at Lawfare who talked to about twenty former colleagues at the FBI…

The president of the FBI Agents Association, Thomas O’Connor,  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.

So Wittes filed a FOIA request.

On June 22, 2017, Wittes . 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 —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.”

Maybe the FBI didn’t respond in a timely fashion so that Wittes would sue and the communications would appear that much more reliable. I would have if I were the FBI.

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.”

The fact still remains that Comey is one of the reasons we have Trump, because of his bizarre and destructive actions over the Clinton emails. But that doesn’t make Trump’s reasons for firing him valid or Trump’s lies about him true.

Lawfare includes the whole set of messages, all 107 pages.

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