There have only been seven FBI directors in the 82-year history of the Bureau. One, J. Edgar Hoover, served for almost 50 years, which leaves only six directors and about three decades to establish precedent for the relationship between a president and his FBI director.
In that context, just how exceptional is Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey? While the entire ongoing Russia investigation is unprecedented in nature, presidents have squabbled with FBI directors before, and President Clinton even fired one. How do the last few drama-filled days stack up against those squabbles, and how might Trump’s decision affect the Bureau moving forward?
To answer those questions, I spoke to Beverly Gage, a professor of 20th-century American history at Yale University, and the author of a forthcoming biography of J. Edgar Hoover G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the American Century, scheduled for publication in 2018. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Vann R. Newkirk II: I’ll start with the big question. Is James Comey’s firing by Donald Trump an unprecedented clash between president and FBI?
Beverly Gage: The answer is yes and no. It is unprecedented in its extremeness—no president before this moment has fired an FBI director who was engaged in conducting an ongoing and politically sensitive investigation of his own campaign. On the other hand, this sort of conflict between the FBI and the executive branch is not itself totally anomalous. It's something that we've seen over the course of American history. During J. Edgar Hoover's day, he had repeated conflicts with presidents, and he had a kind of autonomous power that allowed to withstand and sometimes win those conflicts, for better or worse. Since then, most presidents have been cautious about this kind of direct confrontation.