Remarks on the Dismissal of FBI Director William Sessions and an Exchange With Reporters
The President. Good afternoon. In recent months, serious questions have been raised about the conduct and the leadership of the Director of the FBI William Sessions. Among other matters, the Department's Office of Professional Responsibility has issued a report on certain conduct by the Director. I asked the Attorney General, Janet Reno, to assess the Director's tenure and the proper response to the turmoil now in the Bureau. After a thorough review by the Attorney General of Mr. Sessions' leadership of the FBI, she has reported to me in no uncertain terms that he can no longer effectively lead the Bureau and law enforcement community.
I had hoped very much that this matter could be resolved within the Justice Department. The Attorney General met with Judge Sessions over the weekend and asked him to resign, but he refused. In accord with the recommendation of the Attorney General, with which I fully agree, I called Director Sessions a few moments ago and informed him that I was dismissing him, effective immediately, as the Director of the FBI.
We cannot have a leadership vacuum at an agency as important to the United States as the FBI. It is time that this difficult chapter in the Agency's history is brought to a close. The FBI is the Nation's premier investigative and enforcement agency. Law-abiding citizens rely on the FBI to handle a wide array of complex and sensitive matters, to protect our shores against terrorism, our neighborhoods against the scourge of drugs and guns, our public life against white-collar crime, corruption, and crimes of violence. The Agency's brilliant detective work in the wake of the World Trade Center bombing has shown even in a time of difficulty the men and women on the street and in the labs have continued to give their country their best. With a change in management in the FBI, we can now give the crime fighters the leadership they deserve.
Tomorrow I expect to make an announcement about my nominee to be the next Director of the FBI. In the meanwhile, the Attorney General and I have asked Floyd Clark to serve as Acting Director of the Bureau.
Q. Mr. President, are you—what did he do wrong? And are you confident that there was not an internal vendetta against Judge Sessions because he wanted to broaden the look of the FBI, take in more Hispanics, blacks, and women?
The President. Well, let me answer the second question first. I think that will be remembered as the best thing about his tenure. And he deserves the support and thanks of the American people for trying to broaden the membership of the FBI to make it look more like America and to follow the lead of some other agencies and the United States military.
Now, but beyond that, if you read the report of the Office of Professional Responsibility and you do what the Attorney General did, if you look at that and all of the other circumstances and you assess the capacity of the present Director to lead or the incapacity of the Director to lead, she reached the judgment, which she communicated to me, that he ought to resign. And I fully agreed with that judgment. There are lots of reasons for it.
Q. Mr. President, do you think that this will in any way create the impression that the FBI is being politicized and hurt the long-standing tradition that the FBI not be subject to political pressure?
The President. Absolutely not. As a matter of fact, that's one of the reasons we have taken the amount of time that we have. The Attorney General, when she took office, was asked by me to review this matter. Both of us agreed that in the normal course of events, the Director of the FBI should not be changed just because administrations changed, even when, perhaps even especially when, there's a change of political party in the White House. So the Attorney General was very deliberate, very thorough in this, and I think has gone out of her way to avoid the appearance of political impropriety.
Homosexuals in the Military
Q. Mr. President, won't your new policy on homosexuals in the military require gays in the military to stay in the closet? And do you hope that the courts will take this policy further?
The President. No, it will not necessarily require them to stay in the closet. The policy as written gives people a limited right, obviously, to express their sexual orientation. But if they do so, they are at risk of having to demonstrate in some credible way that they are observing the rules of conduct applied in the military service. That is much more than they had before.
Over and above that, the investigative rules, which are part of the policy, go far beyond anything that was written in law before in terms of respecting the privacy and associational rights of homosexuals in the military service and others, and non-homosexuals, heterosexuals, in the military.
Q. Mr. President, you said in your speech that you thought you had done what was right. You had earlier said that what was right was lifting the ban. How did you reach the decision not to stick with your guns, go ahead, lift the ban, take the heat? This is going to be decided in the courts anyway. Why not stand by your principles?
The President. First of all, I think I did stand by my principles. Under this policy, a person can say, "I am a homosexual, but I am going to strictly adhere to the Code of Conduct." If you go back through every statement I have made, I never said that I would be in favor of changing any of the rules of conduct. I said I did not agree with the whole policy. The only part of this policy with which I do not agree is that the rebuttable presumption, in effect, puts the burden on the service member to demonstrate credibly that he or she understands the rules of conduct and is going to adhere to them. That is the only part of it with which I do not agree.
On the investigative rules governing conduct, there is more protection for privacy rights and for associational rights than I ever discussed in the campaign, than I have ever discussed as President. And it is a significant change, significant in the policy operations of the United States military. So from the point of view of homosexuals who wish to serve honorably, I think it was a substantial advance. That's one answer.
The second point is, I think it is very important for the President, whenever possible, to work with the military services who will have to carry out the policy in a way that maintains the kind of cooperation manifested today. I think all of you who know anything about this issue know that the Joint Chiefs moved a very long way from where they were today, compared to where they were when I first met with them after I became President.
The third issue—there's one last issue—the third issue is that had I done that, that position would have faced certain swift and immediate defeat in the United States Congress because of the opposition of the Joint Chiefs, which they are by law required to give if asked in congressional testimony.
Q. Do you have a sense now that Senator Nunn will not bring about that result by virtue of what he tries to enact? Have you talked to him?
The President. Well, I hope he doesn't. We have been in regular contact with him. Since I basically was not involved in the negotiations of the policy until just a couple of days ago, the Secretary of Defense, at my instruction, was in regular and almost constant contact with Senator Nunn and with some others. And I hope very much that he won't.
There were some changes, a few minor changes and one that was important to me, made in the last few days at my suggestion. But the Joint Chiefs signed off on them. It seems to me that their judgment, given the fact that they were all opposed to the changes which we are now making—they've worked through these things; they've looked at the legal, at the practical, at the factual situations that we face-it seems to me that their judgment ought to count for a great deal and that we should not get in the business of legislating every personnel policy. I would hope that Senator Nunn would support this policy.
Q. Mr. President, how does what people do in private, whether they're gay or straight, have any bearing on their fitness to serve in the military?
The President. Well, you know that I don't believe it does, but today—now, wait a minute, go back and read the policy. Read the policy. Today the Joint Chiefs took the position that any violation of the Code of Conduct must be applied in an even-handed way as it reflects heterosexuals and homosexuals. And you have to go back and read the whole Military Code to understand the significance of that, but it is quite a significant statement by them.
Thank you very much.
Q. One for the Attorney General?
Q. Attorney General Reno, there have been sort of two tracks in terms of the allegations against the FBI Director: one, the ethical problems that were in the original report that was carried over from the Bush administration. The other is that in the months since, he has lost the confidence of his Agency and, therefore, the ability to do his job effectively. For which of those two things is he being dismissed?
[At this point, Attorney General Reno read the letter she sent to the President recommending the dismissal of Mr. Sessions.]
Q. Mr. President—
Q. Does that mean it was both?
Q. Mr. President—
Q. Let me follow up for just a second, Sarah [Sarah McClendon, McClendon News Service]. Did you find that he did violate any laws or Government regulations as charged in the original report? And where did that fall in terms of the confidence that members—
Attorney General Reno. I concluded that, based on the report and the responses to the report, that the Director had exhibited a serious deficiency in judgment regarding matters in the report.
Q. Mr. President, we have seen here an Agency maneuvering The White House, the press, the public, and getting their own head of the Agency that they want. We have seen them push out a man here, and let me tell you—don't you think it's about time to protect American people from any actions, operations of the FBI, that we should write a charter for them in Congress? They only exist by an Executive order which Teddy Roosevelt wrote in 1908.
The President. Well, I don't agree with the characterization you made of what has occurred. So I can't comment on it. I fiat disagree.
Q. Would you look into that, because you obviously have not looked into that?
The President. No, I just disagree.
NOTE: The President spoke at 4:15 p.m. in the Briefing Room at the White House.
William J. Clinton, Remarks on the Dismissal of FBI Director William Sessions and an Exchange With Reporters Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/219892