Flashback to F.B.I. Chief’s ’93 Firing, and to Saturday Night Massacre
The Federal Bureau of Investigation was established in 1908 when the Justice Department created an agency to conduct investigations for it. The first leaders of the F.B.I., known then as chief examiners, were appointed by the attorney general. That custom remained until 1972, when the F.B.I. director, J. Edgar Hoover, died in office after overseeing the bureau for 48 years.
In the years before Hoover’s death, a new confirmation process for the F.B.I. director was developed. After Hoover, the director was nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. In 1976, it became law that the director would be limited to a 10-year term.
In its 109-year history, only one F.B.I. director had been fired — until Tuesday, when President Trump fired James B. Comey. In July 1993, President Bill Clinton fired William S. Sessions, who had been nominated to the post by President Ronald Reagan in 1987. Mr. Clinton said his attorney general, Janet Reno, reviewed Mr. Sessions’s leadership and concluded “in no uncertain terms that he can no longer effectively lead the bureau.”
Mr. Sessions had been cited for ethical lapses, including taking free trips on F.B.I. aircraft and using government money to build a $10,000 fence at his home. Mr. Sessions was asked to resign, and was fired when he refused to do so. “Despite the president’s severe tone, he seemed to regret having to force Mr. Sessions from his post,” The New York Times wrote about his dismissal.
Similarly, Mr. Trump fired Mr. Comey on the recommendation of his attorney general, Jeff Sessions. (No relation to William S. Sessions.) There are no United States statutes that discuss the president’s authority to remove the F.B.I. director.
The termination of Mr. Comey also brought to mind for many the so-called Saturday Night Massacre. On Oct. 20, 1973, President Richard Nixon, seeking to fire Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor leading the Watergate investigation, accepted the resignations of Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus after they refused to take action. Robert Bork, the solicitor general, complied with the president’s order to fire Mr. Cox. Mr. Nixon also abolished the special prosecutor’s office.
But Mr. Nixon did not fire the director of the F.B.I.
Mr. Comey was in the fourth year of his 10-year term. The term limits were imposed after Watergate.; only one director, Robert S. Mueller III, was allowed to serve beyond 10 years. Mr. Mueller, who became director just before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was asked by President Barack Obama to stay on an additional two years, citing “ongoing threats facing the United States.” The Senate unanimously approved the extension.
Two men had their nominations for director withdrawn. In April 1973, Mr. Nixon withdrew the nomination of L. Patrick Gray III, and in September 1977, President Jimmy Carter withdrew the nomination of Frank M. Johnson Jr.