In the hours after President Donald Trump suddenly fired FBI Director James Comey, on May 9, 2017, his former subordinates in the J. Edgar Hoover Building wondered if there would be more shoes to drop.
Would Trump dismiss more people? Would he shut down the investigation of his campaign's ties to Russia? Would the President demand that the Bureau cease its investigation of Michael Flynn, Trump's onetime national security adviser?
In response to these concerns, the FBI took extraordinary -- and previously undisclosed -- steps to protect its investigations.
From Comey's first meetings with Trump, shortly after he won the presidency, the FBI director developed misgivings about his new boss' behavior -- about Trump's demands for "loyalty," and even more unnerving, his request that the Bureau drop its investigation of Flynn. Comey's conversations with Trump had been so distressing that the director started writing up contemporaneous summaries of their interactions and sharing them with a handful of top officials at the Bureau. Now, suddenly, Comey was out -- and the question arose of what to do with his memos about his conversations with the President.
The initial decision fell to Andrew McCabe, who was Comey's deputy and now the acting director of the FBI. McCabe thought Trump's behavior was sufficiently problematic to be investigated for possible obstruction of justice, and he told his team to open a criminal case.
Given the wild pace of events, McCabe couldn't be sure how long he'd last as director, so he wanted to lock down as much evidence as possible. Most important, he told the investigating agents to place Comey's memos in SENTINEL, the FBI's case management software. McCabe knew that once documents were inside the system, they were virtually impossible to remove. With Comey's memos in the system, the investigators were certain to have access to them -- even if McCabe himself would eventually be gone.
Indeed, FBI officials even went a step farther. Once McCabe became director, Bureau employees grew so concerned that Trump would try to shut down the investigation that they secreted at least three copies of key documents, including Comey's memos, in remote locations around the Bureau. This was to make sure that in the event Trump directed an end to these inquiries, the documents could always be preserved, located, and shared.
On May 17, eight days after Trump fired Comey, Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, announced that he had appointed Robert S. Mueller III, the director of the FBI from 2001 to 2013, to serve as special counsel. Rosenstein gave Mueller a broad mandate -- to investigate ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, as well as any matters that arose from his investigation. Mueller's team ultimately took possession of Comey's memos, and they proved to be important evidence in the report Mueller filed two years later. As Mueller later learned, and included in his report, Trump seriously contemplated firing the special counsel on several occasion