Andrew McCabe served as the acting director of the FBI in the three-month aftermath of President Donald Trump’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey. Excerpts from his book, “The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump,” set for release on February 19, provide disturbing new insights into how and why we find ourselves in a full-blown special counsel investigation of our president, his inner circle and their contacts with Russian representatives. Spoiler alert: The book’s title — which compresses the words “threat,” “terror” and “Trump” into one breath — is a clue.
McCabe served America as an FBI special agent for over 20 years, working his way along an arduous career path from organized crime in New York to counterterrorism and high-value detainee interrogations to his eventual appointments as deputy director and then acting director. Among other high-profile cases he worked on, McCabe helped secure the arrest of Ahmed Abu Khattala for suspected involvement in the 2012 Benghazi attack.
Many FBI agents have written books filled with war stories or tales espousing the rewards of public service. Yet, few FBI leaders have felt that they had to write a book.
In the interest of full disclosure, I know Andrew McCabe. I served alongside McCabe for a short period at FBI headquarters; he led the counterterrorism division and I headed up counterintelligence. We were colleagues but not friends, in large part because the crushing work hours typically left little time for socializing. But we both sat through countless early morning briefings of then-FBI Director Robert Mueller. During these times I observed McCabe to be quiet, calm, smart and dedicated.
Many FBI agents have written books filled with war stories or tales espousing the rewards of public service. Yet, few FBI leaders have felt that they had to write a book. McCabe is writing a book for the same reasons that James Comey seems to have written a book; because he feels he must tell his side of the story and counter the withering barrage of taunting he and his family has endured from our bully of a president. "Yet now the rule of law is under attack, including from the President himself,” he writes.
No FBI agent wants to have to appear on national television to share what are typically guarded and private processes. We are all secretive and private about our work by nature and by protocol. It is not in our DNA to publicly recount sensitive discussions and decision-making at the highest levels of our institutions. Knowing what I know about FBI agents, and knowing what I know about Andrew McCabe, I believe this book was probably actually painful to write.
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FBI agents are trained to identify and mitigate threats. It’s clear that McCabe was seriously concerned about a national security threat emanating directly from the Oval Office. As such, he tried to mitigate that threat. These passages paint an image of a chaotic administration made even more chaotic with the firing of the FBI director.
In an interview Sunday on CBS, “60 Minutes,” McCabe stated that during the days after Comey was fired, “the highest levels of American law enforcement were trying to figure out what to do with the President,” even exploring the possibility of invoking the 25th Amendment to have Trump removed from office. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who allegedly was part of such discussions, has offered only a partial denial of such talks. The Department of Justice has disputed the account. I’m convinced such discussions took place and that they reflected genuine concern that this president might be incapable of fulfilling his duties.
Similarly, McCabe asserts he was present when Rosenstein offered, multiple times, to wear “a wire” to record conversations with the president. The New York Times reported in September 2018 that Rosenstein proposed secretly recording Trump, a report that Rosenstein quickly denied. A Justice Department spokeswoman told the Times at the time that Rosenstein made the offer sarcastically.
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But McCabe told “60 Minutes” on Sunday that Rosenstein’s offer was not just a joke and that it happened more than once. In fact, McCabe deemed it “so serious that he took it to the lawyers at the FBI to discuss it.” The fact that the deputy attorney general of the United States would talk of secretly recording the U.S. president, seemingly to capture conversations related to the obstruction of on-going investigations, and/or to gather evidence that the president was unfit for duty, shows there were indeed deep concerns about Trump’s conduct.
Shockingly, as excerpted in the Washington Post, McCabe recounts an Oval Office briefing in July 2017, wherein the president refused to believe a U.S. intelligence report that North Korea had test-fired an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. Trump dismissed this intelligence as a “hoax” because Russian President Vladimir Putin told him North Korea lacked that capacity. To a trained senior FBI agent and lawyer like McCabe, this would have fueled further concern that a president whose potential ties to Russian agents was already under suspicion, was relying on and receiving disinformation from the head of our most formidable adversary.
In McCabe’s telling, he was seriously concerned that obstruction of the Mueller probe was happening or could happen.
In McCabe’s telling, he was seriously worried that obstruction of the Mueller probe was happening or could happen. In his “60 Minutes” interview, McCabe said that fearing he might be fired, he moved to try and ensure the “Russia case was on solid ground.” He took steps to make it tougher for anyone to end the investigation if he was removed. Specifically, McCabe said he ordered an obstruction of justice investigation of the president. This additional obstruction component would have added a layer of protection to the Russian case in that someone trying to close the investigation would have had to prove that decision was not intended to obstruct, or aid the president in obstructing, the broader investigation.
Of course, McCabe’s fears about his job were warranted. He was fired from the FBI a mere 26 hours before he could have retired with an FBI pension. This firing was the result of a DOJ Inspector General inquiry that recommended McCabe be fired for an unauthorized media disclosure and for lacking candor on four occasions. I led an adjudication unit in the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility and was responsible for disciplinary decisions in cases of serious misconduct. I later served as the FBI’s chief inspector, investigating and reviewing sensitive personnel and program performance issues. In the hundreds of internal investigations that I’ve handled, I never saw an FBI employee fired within 26 hours of retirement. In my experience, employees in similar situations were typically allowed to stay on, sometimes under suspension, until retirement eligibility kicked in.
The fact that McCabe may have lacked candor during an inquiry troubles me greatly, but the circumstances around his firing trouble me even more and give rise to concern that the White House or attorney general put their thumbs on the scale of justice when it came to decisions of what to do with McCabe. Importantly, even if the lack of candor allegations were valid, we need to take notice of McCabe’s verifiable observations and accounts. He’s sounding an alarm and we need to listen.