One day after Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday about serious threats facing the U.S. — and how Comey’s absence could impact the integrity of the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia.
But a dramatic change in leadership could affect the bureau’s public image, influence its budget priorities, and slow or hamstring certain investigations at the 35,000-strong agency, former FBI and Department of Justice officials told VICE News. Many said Comey had overstepped his authority while handling the Hillary Clinton email scandal and behaved insubordinately to the attorney general, whom the director of the FBI reports to. Others saw Comey’s firing as the result of Trump’s anger over the Russia probe and think his departure could damage morale within the bureau.
“Trump’s priority is to shut down the investigation,” said William Yeomans, who spent 26 years at the DOJ, in positions including deputy assistant attorney general, chief of staff, and acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. “Whoever comes in will have the authority to re-adjust resources and to make decisions that can undermine the investigation. The FBI director has some authority to do that.”
Since Comey was abruptly ousted by the White House, almost every big news outlet in the U.S. has reported that his removal had a lot to do with President Trump’s anger over the ongoing investigation into his campaign’s possible ties to Russia.
Trump will get to nominate the next FBI director, and former Justice Department and law enforcement officials expect him to pick someone supportive of the White House agenda and the sweeping changes taking place at the DOJ under Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
To understand what Comey’s removal could mean for the integrity of ongoing investigations, it’s important to get a sense of what an FBI director does — or is supposed to do.
“He has a huge role in terms of image. He’s the face of the FBI,” explained Louis J. Caprino Jr., associate professor of homeland security and public safety at Vincennes University and a retired 30-year veteran of the FBI. “But he’s more than just a figurehead. He’s the one who is at the helm of priorities and oversees our budget.”
But there are also limitations. The FBI director cannot, for example, unilaterally determine the budget or switch up the priorities. Those actions require approval from congressional oversight committees in the House and Senate. Priority changes are normally carried out in response to a specific or emergent threat.
For example, “you can backburn these things and not authorize pursuing what could turn out to be controversial leads,” Yeomans explained. “Normally, the director wouldn’t be too hands on in an investigation, except in ones like [the Russia investigation] that has such enormous political and constitutional ramifications,” he added.
The FBI’s current priorities are:
- Fighting terrorism
- Protecting the U.S. from foreign intelligence operations and espionage
- Protecting the U.S. from cyber attacks
- Combating public corruption “at all times.” (The investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while serving as Secretary of State would have fallen into this category).)
- Protecting civil rights, including fighting hate crimes
- Fighting criminal organizations and enterprises, like transnational drug cartels
- Fighting white collar crime
- Fighting “significant violent crime”
- Supporting federal, state and municipal authorities in their law enforcement activity
- Ensuring that the FBI has the most up-to-date technology available
Although these priorities are immutable without the approval of Congress, the next FBI director can take a few steps to impede the progress of ongoing investigations, such as the one into the Trump campaign’s alleged connections to Russia.
Because Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation, any developments on that front would be communicated between the new FBI director and deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein — who also authored the three-page memo explaining why Trump ought to fire Comey. He’s also the only person who can appoint a special prosecutor for the investigation.
During the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Thursday, Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins asked acting FBI director McCabe if any changes had been made to the personnel assigned to the Russia probe since Comey’s ousting. McCabe responded that all agents involved were “still in their positions.” Collins also asked whether the probe had been curtailed at all since Comey’s firing. “Ma’am, we don’t curtail our activities,” McCabe said.
McCabe also said that Comey enjoyed “broad support” within the FBI community, contrary to the narrative offered by the White House that both sides of political aisle wanted Comey out. Dana Ridenour, a retired FBI agent of 30 years, who spent about half of her career undercover with domestic terror groups, questions that idea. She left the agency in 2014, one year after Comey was appointed Director.
“Like everyone else, I think they fired him because he was looking into the Russian collusion,” Ridenour said, adding that she wasn’t confident that Trump would choose a nonpartisan replacement for Comey. “I would like to think that the FBI has always been apolitical, but politics are politics.”
“I hate that he’s been fired,” Ridenour said. “In my opinion, it’s gonna hurt the FBI.” Ridenour described Comey as a hands-on director. “When Comey came in, morale skyrocketed,” she said, noting that he always made an effort to come to all FBI agents’ graduations at the academy and was transparent about whenever he made structural or budgetary changes to the agency. “He wouldn’t just haphazardly go in and start changing things like the prior regime,” Ridenour said.
George Heusten, a retired FBI agent of 22 years who specialized in counterterrorism and counterintelligence until 2002, believes that Comey’s removal would be “an opportunity” to “get things healed and get back to what the bureau traditionally does: investigates, and makes recommendations, one way or another, to the DOJ, and the DOJ makes the call.”
“Comey got into the limelight and liked it there,” Heusten said. “The next FBI director needs to be an FBI director and work under the DOJ. They shouldn’t be calling any news conferences to discuss ongoing investigations.”
Others agreed that overall morale would suffer. Louis Caprino, also former FBI, described Comey as having “a true ethical core” and expected rank-and-file FBI agents to be sad about his departure. “I’m sure the morale is bruised right now,” Caprino said. “What I think is key and critical here, is who the president nominates to replace him. Whoever that person will be has to be an apolitical figure if they’re going to get approved by Congress and have any credibility moving forwards.”