WASHINGTON >> As FBI director, James Comey had widespread support from his agents, according to internal survey data released today that contradict President Donald Trump’s claim that he fired Comey in part because agents had lost confidence in him.
Comey’s firing is among many topics now under investigation by the Justice Department special counsel, Robert Mueller. Trump and his aides have offered changing explanations for why he fired Comey, who was overseeing the investigation into Trump’s associates and possible links to Russia’s election interference.
The FBI released the results of three years of internal questionnaires in response to a public records request by The New York Times. The surveys revealed that agents around the country gave FBI leadership high marks — 4.01 on a scale of 5 — in this year’s survey. The FBI considers scores over 3.81 an indication of success.
Trump has repeatedly cast Comey in a negative light.
“He’s a showboat, he’s a grandstander, the FBI has been in turmoil,” Trump said of Comey in an NBC interview in May. “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.”
The FBI surveys show no support for that claim. They scored him above 4 as both an inspiring leader and someone more interested in leading than being liked. His direct subordinates rated him 4.48 on the question of whether they would work with him again.
While Comey’s marks fell slightly in some categories over his three-year tenure, his scores were consistently high in each year and in nearly every area. Nationwide, agents gave higher marks to Comey’s leadership team in 2017 than they gave to Mueller, who preceded him as director and whose tenure is widely respected.
The latest batch of surveys was conducted in March, months after Comey was widely criticized for speaking publicly in July 2016 and again in October about the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. His former deputy, Andrew G. McCabe, has testified that Comey had not lost the support of his agents.
Trump originally said he fired Comey on the recommendation of the Justice Department, which criticized his handling of the investigation into Clinton. The White House then said that the FBI was in turmoil, and the president said he was thinking about the Russia investigation when he fired his FBI director.
In a congressional hearing, Comey called Trump’s characterization of morale at the FBI a lie. He had no comment today.
Comey viewed the surveys as an important tool in assessing his management corps. Low scores were highlighted in red on the reports, prompting a saying at the FBI: “Red is dead.”
“For those leaders whose surveys are covered in red, we need to quickly find a path to improvement, or we need to get them out of the role,” Comey wrote in an email to staff in 2015.
Comey, in memos on his meetings with Trump, said the president repeatedly asked him to say publicly that he was not under investigation. Comey refused. He said that Trump privately asked him to end an investigation into the former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Trump has denied that.
The Justice Department is investigating whether Comey’s firing amounted to obstruction. Mueller has requested documents from the White House related to his firing and has said he intends to interview West Wing officials about it.
The high marks for Comey’s leadership team also reflect well on McCabe, who has also been the subject of Trump’s sharp criticism. McCabe’s wife, a Democrat, ran unsuccessfully for Virginia state Senate and received donations from a political action committee run by Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, a longtime ally of Clinton’s. Trump took the unusual step of publicly calling for McCabe to be fired while he was serving as acting FBI director.