There are plenty of big questions about President Trump's decision to fire FBI Director James B. Comey: What does this mean for the investigation into the ties of Trump associates to Russia? How will this affect the likelihood of a special prosecutor being called in?
But there's another question — less weighty but still important — that many people have asked since Comey's startling dismissal: Why did it happen this way?
According to reports, the man who built a reputation for firing people across a boardroom table on reality television did not make his most high-profile termination as president in person. Instead, Comey was reportedly caught by surprise when the news flashed on a television in a room where he was speaking to FBI employees.
In doing so, the real estate billionaire who said he'd bring a business executive's acumen to the White House didn't follow what experts call one of the most basic rules of management: Don't catch people by surprise when they're getting the ax, and deliver bad news in person or, if needed, by phone. Management experts say Trump's approach to the firing not only raised risks that a surprised Comey could have spoken openly about the firing to the press, but could have a negative effect on career FBI employees or his successor.
“That’s pretty basic as a management principle,” said Max Stier, chief executive of the nonpartisan nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. “When you let someone go, it’s a basic organizational concept that they ought to know it’s coming, that they've been communicated with before.”
According to reports, Comey was speaking to FBI employees in Los Angeles when a television in the room flashed news about his dismissal. A report in the New York Times said Comey laughed in response, saying he thought it was a prank. His staff then asked him to step into a nearby office where the news was confirmed. “At this point, he had not heard from the White House,” the Times reported. “Shortly thereafter, a letter from Mr. Trump was delivered to the FBI's headquarters.” A report in the Los Angeles Times described him as being caught “flat-footed.”
White House press secretary Sean Spicer, according to The Washington Post's Jenna Johnson, told reporters Tuesday night that an email had also been sent to notify the FBI around 5 p.m. As to why Comey wasn't given the news in a personal phone call, Spicer said “I think we delivered it by hand and by email and that was — and I get it, but you asked me a question and that's the answer.”
Then on Wednesday, when asked in the daily press briefing whether Comey deserved a personal phone call or face-to-face meeting, deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump “followed the proper protocol in that process, which is handwritten notification.” She said that “no matter how you fire someone it’s never an easy process and he felt like following protocol was the best thing to do.”
Trump has not been a conventional president, and any private conversations that may have occurred between the two men are not clear. But experts said in most cases, high-profile political appointees are first given the chance to resign. “Most presidents don’t fire appointees in such a visible display of disaffection,” said Paul Light, professor of public service at New York University. “They lead their appointees forward to resignation. Ordinarily, you give them an ounce of dignity when they walk out of the office.”
Before President Bill Clinton fired William Sessions amid an investigation into unethical behavior and expense-account padding — the only other time a president has fired an FBI director — he was first given multiple chances to resign. According to a 1993 Washington Post story about the firing, Clinton also telephoned Sessions to deliver the bad news.
Light said that while a surprise firing like the one Comey reportedly experienced is highly unusual in any realm, the approach is particularly hard-hitting for government executives. “These are public servants,” he said. “No matter how misguided or inept their leadership may have been, you don't summarily fire them and you don't do it this way.”
It doesn't just hit the person making the exit, but could have lasting aftershocks both with the organization and Comey's successor. “The firing process itself sends a signal to potential FBI directors that they could be subject to the same humiliation,” Light said.
Others suggested Trump's impersonal dismissal of Comey could also have an impact on the FBI itself. Management research has shown that survivors of job cuts work harder when they perceive that their colleagues were treated with dignity.
Stier notes that the FBI, in particular, is composed of employees with particularly long tenures and an agency that's traditionally been above political whims: “This has all kinds of implications, not the least of which is for the FBI itself. It is a traumatic event to lose your leader, and it’s made more traumatic by the way in which it was done.” (In the news briefing Wednesday, Sanders said Trump would be discussing morale with the FBI's new acting director, Andrew McCabe, and would offer to speak to employees at headquarters.)
Stier notes that it doesn't have to be the president himself delivering the bad news or urging a high-ranking executive's resignation, and that sometimes it isn't. But it should still be delivered by a pretty high-ranking individual. “The messenger has import in terms of the perception of how it’s viewed,” Stier said. “If not the president, maybe the White House chief of staff. It’s not a good way to learn the news from a TV monitor.”
Peter Cappelli, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania who studies human resources, says that when people aren't given the news in a personal way that gives them an opportunity to absorb it first, it also creates an unintended risk. “If the press catches the guy off guard, and they start asking him questions, and he reacts and says things he might not have had he had time to get himself prepared,” Cappelli said, “there can be political damage.”
Of course, management experts weren't the only ones who questioned or commented on how Comey learned the news. On Twitter, some noted the irony that a president who had fired people on television “kinda fired the FBI director via TV.” Others, including Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), said the way Comey found out, “if true, that's poor form and plain unprofessional.” Meanwhile, New York Times White House correspondent Maggie Haberman, who has covered Trump since the early 2000s, had a simple explanation: “He doesn't like interpersonal conflict.”