The first time Donald Trump publicly impugned the reputation of former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe was about three months after the bureau had begun investigating links between Trump’s campaign and Russian interference efforts.
But Trump didn’t know about that investigation at the time. His disparagement of McCabe — disparagement that continued on Saturday in the exact same form — was about casting the FBI as part of the D.C. swamp opposing him.
On Oct. 23, 2016, Trump tweeted a link to a Wall Street Journal article suggesting that McCabe’s wife had received hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions from a close ally of Hillary Clinton. That the contribution came in 2015, before McCabe had any role in investigations into Clinton’s use of a private email server and that the contributions were among many made by that Clinton ally — Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) — to candidates running in Virginia’s elections were not added as qualifying factors. Trump was eager to bolster his arguments that the system was out to get him, and the Journal’s headline fit that narrative nicely.
As noted, the FBI had by then already begun the investigation that since has become the biggest thorn in the now-president’s side. It began on July 31, triggered by revelations that Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos had been informed months earlier about Russia’s possession of emails casting Clinton in a negative light. Only two days before Trump’s tweet, the FBI was granted as part of that investigation a warrant to conduct surveillance on Carter Page, another adviser to the campaign who’d broken with it publicly the month before.
After Trump won the election, news stories began to regularly document what the intelligence community was researching — and Trump continually sought to frame those investigations as tainted and unwarranted. When former FBI director James B. Comey first publicly acknowledged the counterintelligence investigation focused on Trump’s campaign last March, he’d already faced pressure from President Trump behind the scenes to curtail the FBI’s inquiries into Trump’s team. Trump asked McCabe and Comey in mid-February to publicly deny a New York Times report about communications between Trump’s team and the Russians; McCabe and Comey, citing protocol, declined to do so.
After Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired McCabe on Friday, after months of public pressure from Trump to take action, McCabe released a statement arguing that the action was meant to “taint the FBI, law enforcement, and intelligence professionals more generally” as “part of this Administration’s ongoing war on the FBI and the efforts of the Special Counsel investigation, which continue to this day.”
On Saturday, Trump’s team wasted little time in tying the McCabe firing to the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III — an investigation that began after Trump fired Comey because of the “Russia thing,” as the president told NBC’s Lester Holt shortly after it occurred.
“I pray that Acting Attorney General Rosenstein will follow the brilliant and courageous example of the FBI Office of Professional Responsibility and Attorney General Jeff Sessions and bring an end to alleged Russia Collusion investigation,” Trump’s lawyer John Dowd said in a statement, “manufactured by McCabe’s boss James B. Comey based upon a fraudulent and corrupt Dossier.”
Over the past year, Trump’s efforts to stymie the Russia investigation have been aided by his allies inside and outside of Washington. The narrative that’s been dominant in that group over the past few months is the one outlined by Dowd: The investigation itself was tainted by bias from the outset. Never mind that Mueller’s investigation has secured admissions of guilt from five individuals — three of whom worked with Trump’s campaign — and indicted 14 others, including Trump’s former campaign chairman. Never mind that there are clear and established links between people associated with the campaign (Page, Papadopoulos) and Russian actors. Trump and his allies, having declared a few of the bricks in the foundation to be wobbly (perhaps after some handiwork with a crowbar), have declared that the entire structure must lamentably be torn down.
As news reports continue to emerge about Mueller’s team negotiating with Trump’s lawyers for testimony, those cries that the investigation is tainted have coincidentally picked up.
There was the infamous memo from Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) released early last month which purported to make the claim that Dowd described in his statement on Saturday. The dossier — a collection of reports written by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele — was alleged to have been the primary impetus for the surveillance warrant against Page, proving — since Steele was paid by a firm that was paid by a firm that was paid by Clinton’s campaign — that politically biased material was used to try to target Trump’s campaign.
Page wasn’t with the campaign when the warrant was filed and, contrary to Nunes’s assertions, the possible political motivations were included in the warrant application — an application that the Democrats, in a memo responding to Nunes, described as much lengthier than relying solely on the dossier’s reporting on Page. And, of course, by the time the Page warrant was granted, there was already an FBI investigation underway.
The Nunes memo followed months of speculation about the bias of an FBI agent named Peter Strzok, who, in text messages with another FBI employee, disparaged Trump regularly. Strzok was originally assigned to Mueller’s team once the special counsel was named, but once Mueller learned of the text messages, Strzok was reassigned. Those text messages followed months of criticism of Mueller’s team for having attorneys assigned who’d once donated to Democratic political candidates, somewhat skipping over the fact that Mueller and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein were themselves both Republicans — in case you suspect that partisanship, not professionalism, is the watchword at in the Justice Department.
In the past week, Trump allies have had added additional material to work with. How could the Mueller investigation move forward when the House Intelligence Committee already closed the books on its own nonpartisan investigation? What value is there to Mueller’s investigation when McCabe has been accused of “lacking candor under oath,” as Sessions said in a statement describing his firing?
The responses to those questions aren’t complicated. The House investigation has been widely criticized — including by Republican members of the committee — for its conclusions. The committee never spoke to several seemingly key individuals, including Papadopoulos and testimony from others was restrictions from the White House. The chair of the House Intelligence Committee, incidentally, is Devin Nunes.
It’s not clear what new information we learned about McCabe. There was an inspector general’s report criticizing his behavior, but that report isn’t public. That report and one from the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility say McCabe “made an unauthorized disclosure to the news media and lacked candor — including under oath — on multiple occasions.” The details of those allegations aren’t known (including, presumably, by Trump’s lawyer Dowd).
This boy has cried wolf before. For weeks before the Nunes memo was released, the public was told that its contents were similarly damning; that turned out to be an exaggeration. And the firing of Comey was predicated ostensibly on a review by Rosenstein of his handing of the Clinton email investigation, but that is generally understood to have been something of a fig leaf. Incidentally, the conversations that McCabe had with the media that led to his ouster were ones that actually damaged Clinton shortly before the election. What this had to do with the investigation into Trump’s campaign isn’t immediately obvious.
It’s not clear what’s new, in other words, that reveals Mueller’s investigation to be tainted to the point of needing to end. Citing the need to fire McCabe as evidence that everything he touched is flawed also depends on the assumption that the firing itself was without political motivation, an assumption that is tricky to defend given Trump’s own very public disparagement of the FBI generally and McCabe in particular. Trump would have you think the McCabe firing proves that McCabe and therefore the FBI and therefore Mueller are tainted. But that all assumes, among many other things, that the firing itself was free of political taint.
After his firing was made public, McCabe told CNN that Trump had repeatedly disparaged his wife’s state senate campaign, comments that McCabe documented repeatedly. During their first meeting in May 2017, Trump allegedly asked McCabe for whom he’d voted the prior year. He told Politico that, every day he was acting director after Comey’s firing, he expected to be fired.
There’s an apparent pattern of political pressure aimed at influencing an investigation that sticks out clearly. It’s not the one Trump and his allies would have you consider.