Serving at Pleasure: The Firing of James Comey

Serving at Pleasure: The Firing of James Comey

Serving “at pleasure” is a vulnerable place to be. At best, one simply needs not to displease too greatly or too consistently. At worst, one must find ways to please the leader all the time, even at the price of one’s own integrity.

Even when someone serves “at pleasure,” our expectation of a good leader is that “pleasure” is not the same as narrow self-interest.

Recently, I talked about advisory committees as part of a training program I was conducting. I noted that the purpose of such committees is to provide useful advice to a decision maker or decision-making body. If one or more members of an advisory committee is not fulfilling that purpose, whether by inaction or by providing advice that is not useful, they should be replaced. “They serve at your pleasure. If they displease you, replace them!”

I then added that it is important to distinguish between displeasure resulting from failure to do the job well and displeasure because they are doing their job well. We need to replace those who displease by failure. And we desperately need to keep those who displease by forcing us to see what otherwise we might wish not to see.

Advisory committee members are not the only ones who serve “at pleasure,” as the recent firing of James Comey reminds us.

While the FBI director is appointed to a 10-year term (a term designed not to coincide with the terms of any one president), it also is clear that the FBI director, like the heads of other federal agencies, serves at the pleasure of the president. If the president wishes to fire the director, the president need not specify cause. The president’s authority to dismiss the director is without limit.

Given that fact, it is interesting that only one of the 10 FBI directors before James Comey had been fired. That one (William Sessions) was dismissed for ethical misconduct that was well-documented, well-known publicly and used consistently as the grounds for the firing.

Beyond this remarkable century-long run, there is additional historical evidence that previous presidents have been reluctant to exercise their clear authority to dismiss the FBI director, even when the FBI has pursued investigations that displeased them.

The dismissal of a police chief may well be similarly sensitive, even though the chief may serve at pleasure. The reason, in both cases, is simple.

We expect justice to be above personal considerations. Inquiries into possible crimes are supposed to go where they must, following the trail of evidence in determined pursuit of the truth. Neither wealth nor power nor status is supposed to make a difference to justice. There may be an element of myth to this expectation, but it is our myth and our hope.

The implication, for the chief executive, is clear. Whether the law requires a showing of cause or not, the tradition of independence suggests that a clear, consistent and convincing justification is required when a manager, a mayor, a governor or a president dismisses the officer who leads this critical enterprise of uncovering truth.

If the executive fails that test, it will raise serious doubts about his or her integrity. And that, certainly, is displeasing.