Hours before news broke that FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe would step down immediately and officially retire in March, a spokesman for President Trump faced the following question from CNN’s Chris Cuomo: “Does [the president] regret pushing on [FBI Director Christopher] Wray to get rid of Andrew McCabe?”
“Well, uh, let’s just step back for a second and say the president has spoken at length — and so have members of Congress — about political influence at the highest ranks of the FBI,” deputy White House press secretary Raj Shah replied. “Remember, the president promoted Andrew McCabe and made him the acting director when James Comey was removed.”
There’s a lot to unpack in these two sentences.
Note that Shah did not dispute the premise of the question. Multiple news outlets reported last week that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has pressured Wray, Trump’s replacement for Comey, to remove McCabe. On CNN, Shah tried to cast doubt on a Washington Post report that Trump asked McCabe how he voted in the 2016 presidential election, but Shah said nothing to counter the notion that Trump wanted McCabe out.
Shah also did not say that Trump regrets leaning on Wray.
Shah then made seemingly contradictory points: He underscored the president’s concern about “political influence at the highest ranks of the FBI” — clearly referring to McCabe — before pointing out that Trump had named McCabe acting director before nominating Wray.
If Trump truly believed that McCabe was too biased to hold a leadership position within the FBI, it makes little sense that Trump would have put McCabe in charge of the agency, even on a temporary basis. But the purpose of Shah’s answer to Cuomo’s question wasn’t really to comment on McCabe, per se; it was to argue that the president is a victim of political influence at the FBI but has not tried to interfere with the agency’s work in any way. Making McCabe the interim FBI director is, according to the White House, strong evidence that Trump has not tried to impede the federal law enforcement investigation of Russian election meddling.
“The president did promote Andrew McCabe to become the acting director, and Andrew McCabe said under oath that there was no effort to influence his investigation,” Shah added, making the argument more explicitly. “There’s no effort from the White House or the Department of Justice to influence things that he did.”
McCabe did testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee last May, two days after Comey’s firing, that the Russia probe had not come up when he met with the president that week. But a lot of time has passed since then.
For Trump, McCabe was a useful public relations prop. The White House could point to his wife’s foray into politics, as a Democrat, to cry bias and also could point to Trump’s promotion of McCabe, in May, to dispute any appearance of obstruction.