When former high-ranking FBI officials read one particular line in President Trump’s statement on the firing of James Comey on Tuesday evening, it just seemed odd. After bluntly informing the FBI director that he was “terminated” based on the recommendation of the attorney general and deputy attorney general, Trump added, in his own inimitable way: “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation,” he was still going to fire him.
Trump’s assertion here is that Comey, the man leading the FBI probe into his campaign’s ties with Russia, had personally told him—not once, but three times—that he is off the hook. But would that really happen? Several former high-ranking FBI officials took the president’s claim as hard to believe.
“Trump’s statement was completely self-serving and I don’t trust it,” former FBI assistant director Ronald Hosko told Fast Company. “Comey knows his job and he’s smart. He’s going to keep things close to this vest and he’s not going to talk about sensitive matters to someone who has a smartphone close to him and likes to tweet.”
Though it’s not prohibited by law, the bureau has strict limits on communicating about pending investigations, especially with the subject of that inquiry. Per a 2009 memo by then-AG Eric Holder, the Justice Department will advise the president on such investigations or cases “when—but only when—it is important for the performance of the President’s duties and appropriate from a law enforcement perspective.”
That kind of discretion is part of the bureau’s culture, says former FBI special agent David M. Shapiro, who’s now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “You would never ever say anything about such an investigation to anybody. That kind of thing is so rare.”
And there are protocols that guide such interactions. “It would be unusual for the FBI director or the deputy director to have conversations with White House officials without the presence of the attorney general or deputy attorney general,” former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told CNN.
“When I read that, right away it stood out,” says a former FBI official, who is a lifelong Republican and prefers not to be named. “It’s something Trump would say, that he wants you to believe, though it doesn’t make any sense to anyone who’s worked at the bureau.”
Trump’s claim is not accurate, sources tell the Washington Post, though FBI officials declined to comment. When asked at a White House press conference about the statement, spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders replied: “I’m not going to get into the specifics of their conversations, but I can tell you that Director Comey relayed that information to the president.”
But to have Comey reach out to Trump to discuss such an important aspect of his investigation goes against the bureau’s ethos. “It’s about good judgment,” adds Hosko. “You keep an arm’s length from your subject unless you’re trying to get a confession out of them while you’re sipping coffee.”
The statement also is prompting skepticism due to Trump’s history of exaggeration and outright falsehoods. Per PolitiFact’s scorecard, 59% of Trump’s statements over the last two years have been mostly false, completely false, or “Pants on Fire” false.
The firing of Comey is reverberating through the halls of the bureau, raising concerns about interference in the FBI’s ongoing investigations. “His firing was insulting to the FBI,” says Hosko. “Comey is a dedicated American and patriot. Some at the bureau think he went too far and some think that Hillary Clinton was indictable [for her misuse of classified emails on a private server], but there is a great deal of respect for him.”
Hosko, who worked at the FBI for 30 years before joining the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, says that he hasn’t heard anything from his former colleagues about the squashing of the Russia probe, adding “the bureau is bigger than one person.”