As the freshly-fired FBI director James Comey was being shuttled towards LAX, having learned of his dismissal from the TVs inside the FBI office in Los Angeles, a gaggle of journalists idled on the sidewalk outside the Directors Guild Theater in West Hollywood, where Comey had been scheduled to speak at a “Diversity Agent Recruitment Program” event. Reactions to Comey’s abrupt departure had been flooding social media for an hour or so and the assembled reporters had that wide-eyed, incredulous look in their faces that have become de regeur in the age of Trump.
“Do you think he’s trying to get out of the parking garage?” one TV anchor asked his cameraman. They quickly set off to explore the other side of the building.
The event, meant to entice people from all backgrounds to join the FBI, was actually open to the public, though many of the journalists seemed too timid to test their luck with the security guards. As a few suited, coiffed men emerged from the theater — which normally plays host to preview screenings of the latest blockbusters — a reporter with a notebook ventured up to ask them if Comey was inside. “Nope,” replied one of the men, who had a rainbow ribbon pinned to his lapel. (He was later revealed to be supervisory special agent Siddhartha Patel, one of the speakers at the event.)
Inside the building, tables had been arranged for check-in, which was a surprisingly friction-less process: all that the event staff asked for was a photo ID, which they then presumably Googled or checked against their database. Security was comprised of two genial women with metal detector wands.
Waiting in the lobby for the results of her background check was a brave BBC reporter. “Are you here to join the FBI, too?” she asked with a wild grin.
Tables were scattered throughout the lobby, where FBI agents from different departments were holding court to rapt audiences, many in their mid-to-late twenties and non-white. “We want our special officers to look like the communities they serve,” one FBI representative told the group that had gathered around her. “That said, you need to be able to pass the fitness requirements, and you also need a four year degree and at least two years of full-time professional work experience.” The crowd, all dressed in sensible business attire, nodded along as if they’d heard this spiel many times before.
The farther you walked through the lobby, the more specialized the departments became; in a back room, prospective candidates could learn about underwater recovery operations and positions in behavioral science. Some of the agents were clearly enjoying recounting their wildest moments on the force; an older agent regaled his groupies with tales of stealing a crook’s car (with a warrant, of course!) while on the job in Las Vegas.
A pamphlet laying on a table, titled “The FBI: A Career Like No Other,” contained an introductory note from Comey praising the bureau’s “world-class” employees. “Their work and their character have established an unmatched reputation for protecting America,” it read. No one seemed to be commenting on Comey’s conspicuous absence from the event nor the fact that, a mere hour before, Trump had fired him with a sneering letter that read, “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the bureau.”
Inside the auditorium, a static image beamed via projector showed the line-up of the event, capped by Comey’s keynote. Speakers were all minorities, including special agent Binnie Phan, a lesbian who’d fled from Vietnam after the war. “I’m proud to serve for the FBI as an openly-gay woman!” she announced.
Deidre L Fike, the FBI’s assistant director in charge of the Los Angeles field, didn’t address Comey’s firing, simply telling the audience that he had to “return to Washington unexpectedly.”
She noted that Comey had been a big proponent of diversity in the FBI, and that the agency would continue his charge. “No matter who leads the agency, our mission remains the same,” she said.