Public Administration Ethics and Donald Trump’s Firing of James Comey

By Dr. Jay Gonzalez, Professor and Chair of GGU’s Department of Public Administration

The recent firing of FBI Director James Comey by President Trump has livened up the usual quiet summer of the Executive Master of Public Administration (EMPA) program at Golden Gate University. This issue is front and center in discussions about Public Administration ethics and the politics-administration dichotomy. As is typical for our program, we have law enforcement agents in the summer class, including FBI agents as well as CIA professionals. It’s a good time to be in an EMPA class at Golden Gate University.

In the fall, when the EMPA program ramps up, students and professors will have plenty to discuss during the introductory course called Theory, Ethics, and Practice in Public Service. The firing raises the classic politics-administration issue of whether politics or partisanship should be allowed to seep into the work of neutral public service. In other words, should civil servants just follow the whims and wishes of elected politicians? The incident will also be used for a case study for this and other classes. Bringing current issues into the classroom reflects GGU’s approach of making real-world scenarios a part of the learning experience.

Bringing current issues into the classroom reflects GGU’s approach of making real-world scenarios a part of the learning experience

Loyalty to What?

In Washington, it is normal for the presidential victor to change heads of cabinet-level departments — from secretaries to undersecretaries — as well as leaders of bureaus or agencies like the FBI or CIA. So, there is no doubt that what President Trump did was well within his legal mandate. However, what is being questioned by many is the political interference in the administrative neutrality of career civil servants. Assisted by FBI career agents and analysts, Director Comey’s actions as a public servant do not favor one party or another. The FBI’s Russia investigation and its conclusions will be based on data and evidence, not politics. The loyalty of men and women in the FBI — including Comey during his tenure — is to the Constitution and the American people, not to the Presidency. This allegiance is also the biggest difference between public and business organizations.

The Saturday Night Massacre

In 1973, the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General both resigned after refusing to follow Nixon’s presidential directive to fire Special Watergate Prosecutor Archibald Cox – in an incident that became known as The Saturday Night Massacre. In the context of class discussion, the question is: What is the parallel between the Nixon-Trump political sagas? Both Nixon and Trump doubted the sworn public servants’ capacity to fulfill their administrative mandates in a non-partisan way. Thus, both presidents disregarded long-time career civil servants’ experience and tenure. Trump felt that an ounce of presidential loyalty is worth more than a pound of Russian investigative intelligence. “Director Comey, YOU ARE FIRED!”

Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox (center) was fired by Richard Nixon in 1973.

The Watergate affair unfolded in an era of television, newspaper, and radio. Now, news is 24/7. Besides the traditional sources, breaking news flows to you on your phone, tablet, laptop, or desktop. Even if you are not looking for news, you will get notifications on Twitter, Facebook, or email. This makes the scale of public knowledge and exposure of the Comey firing 100 times greater than the Saturday Night Massacre. Armed with smart phones, everyone is a reporter. With so much Washington drama coming through our newsfeeds, there’s never a dull moment in the EMPA program!

For more on the Nixon-Trump correlation, watch the Jay Gonzalez television interview that aired on The Filipino Channel (TFC), ABS-CBN News, and KTSF Channel 26 on May 11, 2017.

About Dr. Jay Gonzalez

jay-gonzalez-speakingDr. Jay Gonzalez is a Mayor George Christopher Professor of Government and Society. He has authored 13 books, including Corruption and American Cities and Privatization in Practice. Dr. Gonzalez has worked as a public servant with the governments of the Philippines, Singapore, and most recently the United States — as Commissioner of Immigrant Rights for the City and County of San Francisco. In 2005, he received a Special U.S. Congressional Recognition for his public and community service.


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