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Comey Firing Nets More Negative Reaction Than 1993 FBI Firing

Comey Firing Nets More Negative Reaction Than 1993 FBI Firing

Chart: data points are described in article

Story Highlights

  • More in U.S. disapprove (46%) than approve (39%) of Comey's firing
  • More approved than disapproved when Bill Clinton fired his FBI director
  • Nearly eight in 10 Republicans approve, while as many Democrats disapprove

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- President Donald Trump's decision to relieve FBI Director James Comey of his duties this week drew more disapproval than approval from Americans. Forty-six percent disapprove of the firing, 39% approve and the remaining 15% express no opinion. That reaction is far more negative than the one Americans had the last and only previous time a president fired his FBI director. In July 1993, 44% of Americans approved and 24% disapproved of Bill Clinton's removal of William Sessions. Thirty-two percent did not have an opinion.

Reaction to Presidential Firings of FBI Directors, Today and in 1993
  Approve Disapprove No opinion
  % % %
2017: Trump's removal of James Comey 39 46 15
1993: Clinton's removal of William Sessions 44 24 32
Gallup, May 10-11, 2017; July 19-21, 1993

Gallup measured U.S. adults' reaction to Comey's removal in Gallup Daily tracking May 10-11, commencing one day after Trump informed Comey he was being dismissed.

The difference in public reaction to the Comey and Sessions firings does not merely reflect the popularity of the sitting president making the decision. Trump has averaged 41% job approval in the three days since firing Comey, and that matches Clinton's 41% approval rating at the time he fired Sessions in July 1993.

The context for the firings may be the greater factor. Comey's firing has been more controversial than Sessions' given the confusion swirling around Trump's reported reasons for letting the director go. The White House initially said Trump fired Comey at the recommendation of his deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions because of Comey's alleged mishandling of last year's FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton's email server. However, Trump has since offered two competing explanations. One is that he thinks Comey was acting like a "showboat" and had lost the confidence of his staff. The other is because he felt Comey's investigation into possible links between Trump associates and Russian meddling in the 2016 election was an inappropriate effort to discredit Trump's victory.

Clinton likely sparked less partisan reaction with his firing of Sessions because it was a fairly uncontroversial move made after the Justice Department issued a report raising serious ethical questions regarding Sessions' taxes and possible misuse of government property.

Republicans and Democrats Have Opposite Reactions to Comey Firing

A comparison of the partisan differences in views of the 1993 and 2017 FBI director firings underscores the heightened partisanship in the years since Clinton was president. Republicans and Democrats often express knee-jerk support or opposition to a president depending on his political party and may do so now more than in the past.

Exemplifying this, roughly eight in 10 Republicans (79%) approve of Trump's decision to fire Comey, while 78% of Democrats disapprove. By contrast, in 1993, 57% of Democrats approved of Clinton's move against Sessions, with many offering that they didn't know enough to say either way. At the same time, Republicans were evenly split between approval and disapproval at 34%.

Political independents currently lean more to the Democrats' view, with 32% approving and 45% disapproving of firing Comey. In 1993, independents were more inclined to agree than disagree with Clinton's decision.

Reaction to Presidential Firings of FBI Directors, by Party ID
  Republicans Independents Democrats
  % % %
2017: Trump's removal of James Comey  
Approve 79 32 14
Disapprove 13 45 78
No opinion 8 24 8
1993: Clinton's removal of William Sessions  
Approve 34 42 57
Disapprove 34 26 14
No opinion 32 32 30
Gallup, May 10-11, 2017; July 19-21, 1993

Bottom Line

Trump's letter of dismissal to Comey on Tuesday explained that the firing was intended to restore "public trust and confidence" in the FBI. However, with more Americans disapproving of this dismissal than approving amid confusion over its reasoning, it is not clear if the change will have the intended effect. The outcome will likely hinge on how respected Comey's permanent replacement is as an independent law enforcement official. Meanwhile, most Republicans continue to stand by Trump while Democrats still oppose him, and for now there has been no change in public approval of the president, which has been steady near 41% in the three days since Comey's removal.

Historical data are available in Gallup Analytics.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted May 10-11, 2017, on the Gallup U.S. Daily survey, with a random sample of 1,013 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All reported margins of sampling error include computed design effects for weighting.

Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 70% cellphone respondents and 30% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods.

View survey methodology, complete question responses and trends.

Learn more about how the Gallup U.S. Daily works.

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