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Emails From Inside The FBI Give Insight To Reaction When Former Director Comey Was Fired

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The White House has long said that President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey last May because employees at the bureau had lost confidence in him. Here's what White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said back then.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: I mean, I have heard from a large number of individuals that work at the FBI that said that they're very happy with the president's decision.

CHANG: Details came out today that paint a very different portrait of the FBI at that time. Those details are found in internal messages that were obtained and published by the national security blog "Lawfare." Benjamin Wittes is the blog's editor-in-chief and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Welcome, Ben.

BENJAMIN WITTES: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: So you got those records through a Freedom of Information Act request. Why did you file a FOIA request in the first place?

WITTES: So I filed the request back over the summer because Sarah Huckabee Sanders had said those words that you just played, and the president had said that the FBI was in turmoil and that the director whom he fired was a nut job. And that was not remotely consistent with anything that I had ever heard about the internal FBI management or feelings of the rank-and-file toward the management. And so one really good way to get a read on what the internal reaction was would be to just FOIA all of these statements to staff from all of the field offices, from all of the divisions, from all of the sections and see, what were people telling their staffs?

CHANG: Tell me some things that jumped out at you within those 100 pages of communications you got through the FOIA request.

WITTES: The first thing was just how confusing the episode was. So they learned about it on TV. People were quite upset. One special agent in charge ended his initial email by saying that he hoped this was an example of fake news. In the 103 pages that I reviewed, not a single example of anybody saying anything that reflected that the FBI was in turmoil - at least not before the firing - or that they appreciated what the president had done, or that there was anything other than affection for Jim Comey and admiration for him.

CHANG: Comey was forced out of the FBI last May, a while ago. Why is it important to bring these details to light now?

WITTES: The White House spent the week after the Comey firing lying about it. The day we stop correcting grotesque political misstatements of truth is the day we normalize this kind of lying. And the reason we have laws like the Freedom of Information Act is so that people can hold government accountable for statements and check whether they're true.

CHANG: We should point out that you are a personal friend of James Comey. Did that influence you and your desire to publish these documents?

WITTES: So honestly, I think the big problem here was not what the president said about Jim Comey. Jim Comey is a big boy, and he gets to speak for himself. And he did. He...

CHANG: But, Ben, did your personal friendship with Comey influence you in any way in your desire to publish these documents?

WITTES: I mean, look; Jim and are friends. And I care about the institution. And I care about him personally. This isn't the only FOIA request that I have and not even the only one that I'm litigating. And the other ones are not about this. So am I partly interested in this subject because, you know, the president fired a friend of mine in particularly awful circumstances? I'm not going to say that has nothing to do with it. But it's - you know, the FOIA work that I'm doing is much more concerned about the institutions in question than about the individual relationships with individual people.

CHANG: That's Benjamin Wittes of "Lawfare" and the Brookings Institution. Thank you very much.

WITTES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.