James Comey's firing by President Donald Trump came as a shock to many in Washington and across the country, but probably to no one more so than Comey himself. Just four years into a 10-year appointment, the FBI director was speaking in California when cable news channels in the back of the room broke the news. Only later did the official letter from the president make its way to the director, but by then, the whole country knew.
Yet despite the way he was let go, Comey shows no animosity in his farewell letter; he seems to accept the dismissal while focusing on FBI values and mission.
The letter, which was obtained by CNN, starts with the very issue of why he was fired. "I have long believed that a President can fire an FBI director for any reason, or for no reason at all," Comey wrote. "I'm not going to spend time on the decision or the way it was executed. I hope you won't either. It is done, and I will be fine, although I will miss you and the mission deeply." The question, though, is whether the American people will be fine — he gets to that too:
I have said to you before that, in times of turbulence, the American people should see the FBI as a rock of competence, honesty, and independence. What makes leaving the FBI hard is the nature and quality of its people, who together make it that rock for America.
The next FBI director will be chosen by President Trump. Given that the agency was looking into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and high-level Russian officials, that's going to be difficult for much of the country to stomach. The firing of Comey essentially puts the bureau — and the country — into "times of turbulence."
Trump's reasoning for firing the director is purportedly Comey's mishandling of the Hillary Clinton email case, but the timing of the FBI investigation into Russia makes that a little suspect. Still, while speaking to the select agents, staff, and friends at the FBI who received the letter, Comey only dwells on how great his colleagues are and how "working with [them] has been one of the great joys of [his] life."
He seems to have faith in the civil servants at the bureau. "It is very hard to leave a group of people who are committed only to doing the right thing," Comey wrote. "My hope is that you will continue to live our values and the mission of protecting the American people and upholding the Constitution. If you do that, you too will be sad when you leave, and the American people will be safer."
That is most certainly the case, but the FBI will need a strong, non-partisan leader to steer the agency through these difficult times and ensure that everyone is investigated to the fullest extent of the law — even the president. Comey seemed able to do that. It's up to the Senate to ensure the next FBI director can as well.