Upon the unexpected firing of former FBI Director James Comey in May, AU’s President John Pistole became a candidate for his replacement. Since then, Pistole has remained quiet about his experience interviewing for the position. For the first time, Pistole is speaking with the media in this Andersonian-exclusive Q&A about what may have been had he left AU and returned to the FBI.
Q: You get the call—the FBI position is open and you’re on the list. Could you take me through the process beginning to end?
A: I think most people know that when the now-former FBI Director, James Comey, was fired, it was a shock to everybody. That night, my name was floated, suggested by a couple of journalists that I know, but nobody from the White House or Department of Justice contacted me for about two weeks.
During that time, there had to be at least 12, maybe 15, different names of people, a number of whom were interviewed by the president for the interim FBI director position, which I was not contacted about.
About two weeks after Comey’s firing, I was contacted by a good friend who is still active in government, and who I had worked with previously. He asked whether I’d be interested in having my name considered. We talked about that, and I said, ‘I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be now.’
He strongly encouraged me to at least talk to the deputy attorney general and the attorney general to give them my views about what they should look for in the next FBI director.
I happened to be on the East Coast when I got this call, visiting family.
I talked to the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who wrote the memo used by the president to justify the firing of Comey. He said that I’d come highly recommended by a number of people, that the process had been somewhat chaotic until then and that they were trying to bring some order to the process by identifying a couple of people for the president to talk to more seriously.
He asked if I could come in.
We were in Delaware at the time visiting my in-laws and were going to Virginia the next day to see our daughter, and I said I’d be driving through D.C. the next day if he had any time, not thinking he would. But he did, and the attorney general did too. As we were driving from one set of family to the other, I stopped by the Department of Justice and met with the attorney general and the deputy attorney general.
We had a very frank conversation. I told them about my views of the FBI and the presidency and how those two should be kept completely separate. And I told them that, although I agreed on some things with the president, I disagree, sometimes strongly disagree, with the current president. I still support the office of the president, but I’ve generally remained apolitical throughout my career. I told them that, if asked, I wasn’t sure that I would say yes. I thought that was enough of a qualifier because, in my experience, the president would never ask somebody to serve in an appointed position unless they know the answer.
I didn’t hear anything for several days, but the next Monday night I got a call from the deputy attorney general and he said, ‘Hey, the White House just called and the president wants to meet you tomorrow at 5 p.m. Can you be here?’
I said, ‘Well, I’m in Chicago tomorrow for some meetings, what about toward the end of the week?’ There was this pause, like he wasn’t too wild about it. So I changed my schedule and contrary to some rumors, the White House did not send a plane out to pick me up. I bought a ticket that night and paid for it myself.
When I got to the West Wing, Chris Wray, who was eventually selected and confirmed, was there. We’d worked together 10-12 years ago, and it was good to see him. We both knew somebody else was being considered but didn’t know who it was, so we were both relieved to see that it was somebody who was qualified, if you will, and not a political hack.
I met with the president, the vice president, the attorney general and his chief of staff, and then the White House counsel, the chief lawyer for the White House. We had a good conversation. [Trump] asked me some good questions, and I asked him some questions. He asked if I wanted the job, and I told him that I was greatly conflicted because I felt a strong sense of God’s calling at AU. He said, ‘Oh, okay.’ I don’t think he was anticipating my response, and I also didn’t interpret him as offering me the job. I think he was thinking like a corporate CEO, basically saying ‘tell me why you think you’re the best qualified,’ and I didn’t feel like I needed to do that. And again, I didn’t have the strong sense that God was calling me back to government.
He asked me again a little bit later in the interview if I wanted the job, and I said the same thing. He said, ‘Well, it sounds like you need some time to think about it.’
I said, ‘Yeah, I appreciate that,’ thinking that if he was going to ask me, then I could say yes or no.
That’s the way we left it. Mike Pence escorted me out, and we talked for several minutes afterward. He was very encouraging about how ‘the country needs you’ and ‘the FBI needs you.’ I thanked him, and we had a good, candid conversation.
It was almost a week later when the president tweeted [his selection of Wray].
I heard from the deputy attorney general the night before the president tweeted. He had not heard anything, and he said, ‘I think you’re going to be the selection, but I don’t know.’
I felt a strong sense of relief that I had been open to the possibility, even though I didn’t discern God’s guidance on it. My experience in government services says that, well, if the president asks you to do something, as long as it isn’t illegal, immoral or unethical, then you should say yes out of public service. But that was really a conflict for me, in that I wasn’t getting the sense that I should be saying yes to this—so I never said yes, and I never said no. I just said that I felt greatly conflicted; and I felt like that was enough to have him make another selection and make it okay for everybody.
That all being said, it was a tremendous honor to be considered, but I don’t want to leave here.
Q: As soon as the reports spread that you were being considered, students immediately took to social media. One of the most common phrases was ‘you can’t have him.’ The students didn’t want you to leave—countless plea after plea tweeting at the president, ‘don’t take him.’ How does that make you feel about your place at AU?
A: Oh boy; oh my. That is very humbling. I guess I missed that. I kind of went dark for a few weeks. I just stayed off social media. Boy, that’s very humbling. I’m honored. It’s an affirmation to me that I made the right decision to not just jump in and say “pick me, pick me!” This is where I feel like God’s calling me to be. It is a deep, abiding sense of peace, and that is just affirmation.
Q: Many students feared losing you, but here you are.
Q: Tell me why AU—what about AU keeps you coming home when, as Mike Pence said, ‘the nation needs you,’ and ‘the FBI needs you’—what keeps you here?
A: It is that sense of God’s direction and guidance that I sensed three years ago when the trustees reached out to me to see if I’d be open to having my name considered along with however many people applied for the presidency. I’ve tried to really be sensitive, open to and attuned to God’s leading. I had a really strong sense that, yes, God is calling me to here. I have a five-year contract with the trustees. I’m the first president that they wanted to have a contract with, but it’s at will so they can fire me or I can leave at any time, but it’s just that sense of I’m only halfway through my first term, and I’m hoping to do more than one term, trustees and God willing. It just seemed like I would be walking away from where I am being called to.
I talked to both James Comey and Robert Mueller, the current special counsel on the Russia invesatigation. Both were here on campus, and I got their views on whether I should talk to the president. They gave me some really good professional and personal insights that were very helpful. It just seemed that with the love that Kathy and I have for AU, it’s going to take a lot to pry us out voluntarily, and I just didn’t have that sense.
And here, too, the guy sitting across the desk from me is the guy who had fired James Comey, my friend, and I didn’t think for sufficient cause. The FBI director by law has a 10-year term to outlast any two term president, so it is supposed to be an apolitical position. I thought, ‘Do I even want to go into that position?’
Some of his answers to my questions I disagreed with, and I told him that. It probably didn’t sit well with him. I don’t know how many people disagree with him.
It’s just very flattering, humbling, to know that people want me to be here.
Q: You maintain security clearance, and a lot of students probably don’t realize that. How does that play into your day-to-day life and what sorts of things do you get called for?
A: I serve on a couple of either government or quasi-government boards, pro bono. I used to serve on the Homeland Security Advisory Council, which acted as an advisory board for the Secretary of Homeland Security, which was one reason I kept my top-secret security clearance. From time-to-time I’d get briefed on the latest threats or issues.
I’ve rotated off of that because former US Indiana Senator Dan Coats is now the director of national intelligence. He asked me to serve on a Senior Advisory Group for the office of the director of national intelligence. We had our first meeting earlier this month, and as part of that, I have to maintain my clearances. It’s an honor for me to serve on those.
I’m also on Aspen Institute of Homeland Security Group, which means twice a year — once in Aspen, which is very nice, both groups will call from time to time to see if I’d be willing to be interviewed by a journalist, or I’ll just get calls directly from the media, particularly related to aviation security.