The Firing of James Comey

The news of the firing of FBI director James Comey stunned the nation and provoked an instantaneous reaction: astonishment in some quarters, indignation and allegations in others.

As the president’s defenders and critics trade accusations, it is premature to pass judgment on Comey’s dismissal. At this point it’s all speculation. The Trump administration should first be given the chance to explain the decision in detail before the Democrats, the pundits and the pollsters leap in to explain it for him.

The official letter of dismissal leaves too much unanswered, and we look forward to a full and candid explanation from the White House in the coming days.

In the meantime, it is appropriate to comment on the way in which Comey was fired.

First of all, a terse letter from the president to Comey informing him that he was “hereby terminated and removed from office, effective immediately” was reportedly hand-delivered to FBI headquarters in Washington — but only after Comey, who was speaking to agents at the FBI’s field office in Los Angeles, learned of it through the media. In fact, Comey originally thought it was prank, until his aides confirmed that it was true.

The dismissal is already being compared to those of other high officials in the past: the “Saturday Night Massacre” of special prosecutor Archibald Cox, Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus by Nixon during the Watergate crisis; the ouster of Reagan chief of staff Donald Regan; Obama’s decision to relieve Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and others.

Arguably, the closest comparison is to President Harry Truman’s decision to relieve General Douglas MacArthur of his command during the Korean War. In retrospect, historians generally credit the president with doing the right thing in light of the general’s blatant insubordination. But, as then-Secretary of State Dean Acheson later put it, “There was no doubt what General MacArthur deserved. The sole issue was the wisest way to administer it.” (Acheson, incidentally, was on the “firing squad,” as MacArthur called it, that drafted the brusque letter of dismissal.)

The Truman administration had been seething for a long time over the general’s arrogant and disastrous behavior — provoking China’s massive intervention by sending Allied forces too close to its border, despite warnings — but when it finally acted, a series of communication snafus caused the news to be broadcast before MacArthur was personally notified.

What hurt, he said, was the “method” the president had apparently chosen, to be “publicly humiliated after 52 years in the Army.” Truman insisted that MacArthur be summarily relieved of duty, rather than offering him a more gracious way out by resignation, and ordered him to return to the U.S. without ceremony, where he would be given an explanation in person.

MacArthur’s standing at the time was that of a hero of World War II and a potential candidate for president. His popularity far outstripped Truman’s own, and the backlash against the administration was ferocious, including calls for the impeachment of the president.

As one historian described it: “It is doubtful if there has ever been in this country so violent and spontaneous a discharge of political passion … Certainly there has been nothing to match it since the Civil War.”

James Comey does not have the stature of a Douglas MacArthur and it is doubtful that his departure will generate so great a tumult. But the circumstances of his dismissal are similarly regretful.

Rarely is a senior official of the federal government — in this case the nation’s number-one law enforcement officer — dumped so unceremoniously, without warning or due explanation.

If a face-to-face interview is considered a necessary part of the hiring process (and important posts usually entail a series of interviews), then it would seem that to dismiss the person should also require a face-to-face meeting. It is uncomfortable, even painful, for both executioner and executed, but it is the honorable way to do it.

In February 1987, in the wake of the Iran-Contra affair, President Reagan met privately with his then-chief of staff Donald Regan and informed him that he wanted Regan to step down. They decided on a timetable for a respectful exit that would take place some ten days later, but word that he was being replaced by Howard Baker was prematurely leaked to the media.

Deeply offended, Regan quit, later complaining that the president had treated him “like a shoe clerk.” Reagan later expressed regret about the leak.

The truth is, even a shoe clerk deserves decent treatment. All the more so the head of the FBI.