Why James Comey is staying on at the FBI

Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey told key agents that he has been asked by the Trump administration to stay on as FBI chief.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters
Director of the FBI James Comey walks to greet US President Donald Trump during the Inaugural Law Enforcement Officers and First Responders Reception in the Blue Room of the White House, on January 22, 2017.

FBI Director James Comey has been asked to stay at his post, according to various sources close to the director.

Mr. Comey has gotten heat from both sides of the aisle for his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, first from Republicans when he recommended that the investigation be closed without charges in July, and then from Democrats when he sent a letter to members of Congress announcing that there may have been newly discovered emails pertinent to the investigation. The letter was sent only 11 days before the presidential election, possibly contributing to Donald Trump's surprise victory in the November election.

While it is uncommon for an FBI director to be fired by an incoming president, the politically charged circumstances of the email investigation have led many to wonder whether Comey would be the first director removed from his post since then-President Bill Clinton removed William S. Sessions from the job in 1993 over ethical improprieties, the first such removal since 1972.

On Jan. 15, chief of staff Reince Priebus indicated that Trump would be willing to keep Comey on, according to The New York Times. 

"Yes, he has confidence in Director Comey," Mr. Priebus said at the time. "We have had a great relationship with him over the last several weeks. He’s extremely competent. But, look, his term extends for some time yet. There's no plans at the moment in changing that term. And we’ve enjoyed our relationship with him and find him to be extraordinarily competent."

According to sources with knowledge of the situation, Comey announced at a Wednesday teleconference with various top agents that Trump had personally asked him to stay on as the director of the FBI. The White House has yet to confirm Comey's statement.

Comey, who was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2013, is on track to serve a 10-year term that will bridge at least two separate presidential administrations. The term length was a post-Watergate decision, designed to maintain the political independence of the FBI as an investigative governmental organization, at least under normal circumstances.

But circumstances are not exactly normal for Comey. The director is currently under a Department of Justice Inspector General investigation himself, an especially difficult position in such a politically charged atmosphere.

According to The Washington Post, some House Democrats have claimed that Comey had not treated the investigation into Russian hacking of the Democratic National Convention's emails in support of the Trump campaign in the same way that he led the investigation into Clinton's email scandal, rendering him unfit for the post.

"[Comey] should pack his things and go," said Rep. Hank Johnson (D) of Georgia, after a recent closed-door briefing about Russian hacking, the Washington Post reported.

While most of the ire towards Comey comes from the Democrats at the moment, many Republicans, including Trump, have not always been fans of the FBI director. After Comey's recommendation that no charges be filed against Clinton last year, Trump released a statement condemning the conclusion:

"Because of our rigged system that holds the American people to one standard and people like Hillary Clinton to another, it does not look like she will be facing the criminal charges that she deserves," Trump said at the time. 

Now, however, it seems that Trump has had a change of heart, possibly wishing to avoid another round of confirmation hearings for a replacement for Comey.

But the president's relationship with the FBI head may not continue to be an easy one. The FBI is currently leading an investigation into ties between some of Trump's associates and the Russian government, including Paul Manafort, the president's former campaign manager.

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