President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey on Tuesday evening drew quick comparisons to Richard Nixon’s firing of special prosecutor Archibald Cox during the Watergate investigation in 1973. But the only other time a president has actually fired an FBI director came two decades after that, and in quite different circumstances.
William Sessions was appointed FBI Director by Ronald Reagan in 1987. By the early ’90s, however, his career was in a downward spiral.
“Ever since she took her job,” TIME wrote in early July of 1993, “[Attorney General] Janet Reno has suffered from having a lame duck on her team. A noisy, balky one. The head of the FBI, William Sessions, has been discredited in the job and has lost the confidence of his agents, but refuses to leave. Reno has met with Sessions several times in the past few weeks, apparently to show him the door, but without immediate success. And President Clinton, who is the only one who can fire the FBI director, has not done so.”
Sessions’ errors fell into two general categories: incompetencies and abuses of privilege. In the latter arena, Reno’s predecessor, William Barr, issued a report on his last day in office noting that Sessions had used “limousines and government flights for personal business.” Other abuses were mentioned in the report too, as TIME noted:
Meanwhile, in the office — if he was there, and he was often missing in action at critical moments — he was seen as an ineffective leader. TIME described an operation by the Hostage Rescue Team to save nine employees of Alabama’s Talladega federal prison, who were being held captive by armed inmates. When Sessions arrived on the scene, his actions were not seen as helpful:
While current FBI agents were reportedly in tears at the news of Comey’s firing on Tuesday night, there was no love lost between Sessions and his subordinates. “Tales of incompetence and self-indulgence on the part of the bureau’s director have pushed the organization into a state of near mutiny,” TIME wrote. “Even top officials on the agency’s seventh floor have given Sessions the freeze-out.” Per one agent: “It’s so cold up there you can hang meat.” Agents’ nicknames for Session included “Director Concessions” and “H.G.” (His Goofiness).
The writing was clearly on the wall that it was time for Sessions to go, but he accused his deputy of trying to take over, and his wife gave statements to the press alleging a dozen people were “bent on” removing her husband from the job.
But, even as Sessions publicly maintained that he would not resign, he reportedly signaled to the White House that he would “do so under certain conditions. At one time he said he wanted to stay in office until the end of 1993, thereby increasing his pension income $5,000 a year.”
Alas for Sessions, President Clinton finally gave him his pink slip on July 19, 1993. “We cannot have a leadership vacuum at an agency as important to the United States as the F.B.I.,” Clinton said. In this regard, at least, Sessions’ firing bears a certain resemblance to Comey’s: “It is essential,” wrote Trump in his letter to Comey, “that we find new leadership that restores public trust and confidence in its vital law enforcement mission.”
While Trump has not yet announced his plans for Comey’s replacement, Clinton had already lined up a then-federal judge and former FBI agent, Louis Freeh, who was quickly confirmed and went on to serve as FBI Director for nearly eight years.