"You can't fire me. Only the president can fire me."
President Clinton's White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum explains how FBI Director William Sessions was removed from his post in 1993.
Sessions, two things. One, there was this report that I recall. I haven’t reviewed this for quite a while, but it was regarding certain ethical issues that had arisen with Sessions. I’m not saying they were the most major ethical issues ever, but there were clearly some issues that arose. And we were sensitive to those kinds of issues at that point. But more significantly, this is what I remember. He had lost the respect of the upper echelons of the Bureau, not really because of these ethical things, but just generally, and this was a problem for us. It wasn’t that he was a bad person or anything. This was typical Washington maybe, but he wasn’t our appointee. He was appointed before our time. He had lost the respect of the senior people of the FBI, and we were concerned about that.
We didn’t have an Attorney General in place for a while, and now we had the danger of dysfunctional leadership of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, plus the media and the ethics charges and things like that. So we had to deal with it. We made the decision. The President made the decision, obviously, but I had a lot of input. We really had to make sure that the FBI was stabilized at the top and well-run. That’s a very significant agency, the most significant one there is, even more than the Justice Department in a sense, even though it is part of the Justice Department. So we had to get somebody good, because this was going to be a nomination closely watched.
Now Sessions has a very strong wife, Alice Sessions, who to this day is delighted that I was also eventually fired. [laughter] I went to talk to Sessions. I said, Really, you should let the President make his own— The FBI Director is a ten year term, but at the pleasure of the President. So although it is officially a term, and you have to be confirmed by the Senate, it’s not really a term. It’s at the pleasure of the President. I said, We’ll try to do this nicely. You know, I’ve had past experience in the private corporate world. You can resign, you can become a consultant, you’ll do it on your own terms. I’m bending over backwards to be nice, and he’s being very nice in his conversations, but he says, I can’t do it. In effect, he’s saying his wife won’t let him do it. I don’t know if he used those words, but she was very angry and I understand that. I said, Well, you’re really going to have to do it. He said, No, no, I’m not resigning.
So I talked to the Attorney General and I talked to Webb Hubbell. I said, You talk to Sessions. I said to Janet Reno, You talk to Sessions and tell him he really has to resign. And if he doesn’t, then you fire him. Let me know in advance, but you fire Sessions. So she called me up. I said, Did you talk to Sessions? She said, Yes. I said, Is he resigning? She said, No. I said, Well did you fire him? She said, I can’t do that. We have to talk some more.
So I talked to Hubbell, and he talked to Sessions. Sessions won’t resign, but Hubbell didn’t fire him. Reno would give Hubbell the authority to fire him, but Hubbell did not want to do it. Reno and Hubbell got along very well, and they really liked each other until Hubbell had to leave. They got along.
So they asked me. You have to come down and you have to do it. I said, Okay, I’ll do it. This is crazy, you’re the Attorney General. But no, I go down. I go. I’ve got to go down, this is my job.
I had to tell Zoë Baird. Now three months later, I go down. I meet with Sessions. I said, We’ve talked again, Director Sessions, but if you don’t leave, we’re going to fire you. Reno wouldn’t do this, and neither would Hubbell. He says to me, You can’t fire me, you’re the Counsel. Only the President can fire me. I said, That’s right, the President can fire you, but I’m speaking on behalf of the President. I’m telling you, if you don’t leave, you’re fired. He says, You can’t fire me. Only the President can fire me. I said, You want to hear from the President directly? He says, Yes, I want to hear from the President directly.
So I get up. I said, Okay, you’ll hear from the President directly. I got up, got into my car, went back to the White House, walked into the Oval Office, and said, I just came from Sessions. I fired him but he wants to hear from you directly. The President said, What? I have to call him? I said, Yes, you have to call him, you’re the President. He said, Bernie, I don’t want to do that.You call him right now, and you tell him he’s fired. I was mad at Sessions at this point for doing this, but I didn’t care, I would fire him. Again, it’s not about me. He knew I was conveying the message of the President. He knew I wasn’t coming there on my own and inventing this. He knew the President made this decision after discussions in the Oval Office.
So I say, Call him. The President doesn’t like these confrontations either. The only one I think he ever fired directly was me, and even there he couldn’t do it in a conversation. So I said, Pick up the phone. I said to Betty Currie, Get Director Sessions on the phone. The President gets on the phone. Director Sessions? Yes. It’s the President. Bernie just left you, yes? What Bernie said was correct. I want to tell you that I am replacing you as Director of the FBI. Thank you. Very good, he hangs up. I said, What happened? He said, I told him. You heard me. I told him, and he said, ‘Fine,’ he’ll leave office. I said, When? Did he say when? He said No. Call him back. [laughter]
Now, I don’t know if I told the President to say this. I remember this happening, but maybe I screwed up by telling him not to do it in the original call. Call him back and tell him he has to leave by tomorrow morning. He said, I don’t want to do that. I said, He has to, we’re appointing another FBI Director, I’ve lined somebody up. We had the whole Freeh process going on at this time. Tell him he has to leave tomorrow morning.
He looks at me, very angry. The President picks up the phone, gets the Director. By the way, Director Sessions, you’ll leave tomorrow morning. Yes, thank you. And he hangs up. Poor Sessions. After he met with me or something, he then walks out and he trips and falls and breaks his arm. This is in the newspapers. It’s like a sad story.
He’s a nice guy, a sweet guy. He’s doing well now. He’s an arbitrator, somebody told me, but that’s what I had to do.