Andrew McCabe, who became acting director of the FBI when President Trump fired James B. Comey in May 2017, has a new book coming out, and what has been revealed so far is causing a stir. While much of the attention today is on McCabe’s revelation that senior Justice Department officials discussed whether it might become necessary to invoke the 25th Amendment and have Trump removed from office, there’s a story underneath dramatic moments like that one that needs to be understood.
McCabe’s account adds further detail to a picture of a president who is his own worst enemy. Again and again, Trump’s narcissism and insecurity led him to put himself in more jeopardy than he was already in. Had he been able to control himself, he might have gotten away with a lot more.
Let me start with this seemingly minor point from the excerpt of McCabe’s book published in the Atlantic today. The day after Comey was fired, Trump called McCabe while he was meeting with FBI staff working on the Russia investigation:
The president said, I’m good. You know — boy, it’s incredible, it’s such a great thing, people are really happy about the fact that the director’s gone, and it’s just remarkable what people are saying. Have you seen that? Are you seeing that, too?
He went on: I received hundreds of messages from FBI people — how happy they are that I fired him. There are people saying things on the media, have you seen that? What’s it like there in the building?
This is what it was like: You could go to any floor and you would see small groups gathering in hallways, some people even crying. The overwhelming majority liked and admired Director Comey — his personal style, the integrity of his conduct.
There are plenty of reasons to criticize Comey, but by all accounts, he was indeed popular inside the FBI. Trump’s contention that hundreds of FBI personnel contacted him to tell him how great it was that he fired Comey was an obvious, pathetic lie and a variant of one he often makes in public. Upon making an unpopular decision, Trump will frequently say that the people who would be most angry are in fact overjoyed and have been getting in touch to tell him so personally, as though anyone who wants can just pick up the phone and talk to the president. You’ll recall that he claimed government employees forced to work without pay were reaching out to tell him how pleased they were with the shutdown.
You might forgive that kind of transparent fabrication as just PR, but when he does the same thing in a private phone call with the acting FBI director, who knows it's false, something else is going on. Trump seems to crave validation, to be told that he's brilliant and everyone loves him. But instead of achieving what he wanted, that phone call helped convince McCabe that Trump was dangerous and steps had to be taken to protect the Russia investigation from him.
Of course, quashing the Russia investigation was why Trump fired Comey in the first place. That’s not speculation; Trump himself said so both on national television and in a White House meeting with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador. “I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Trump told them. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off."
But it had the opposite effect. Trump’s decision to fire Comey didn’t take off the pressure — it amped it up. It led McCabe to open an obstruction of justice investigation. It helped convince Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein that he had no choice but to appoint a special counsel to take over the Russia investigation, which he did just eight days after Comey’s firing.
That special counsel has almost certainly been more aggressive and far-reaching in investigating Trump and his associates than an ordinary FBI investigation would have been. The results threaten Trump's very presidency, with a rain of indictments and convictions and one Trump aide after another either heading to jail or cooperating with prosecutors. Had Trump not fired Comey, Rosenstein would probably still have appointed a special counsel, given the nature of the scandal and how many of Trump's staff and family members were implicated. But Trump's ham-handed attempts to limit the investigation made that appointment a certainty.
That leads us to another important revelation from McCabe. In an interview with CBS, he makes clear just how frightened people at the Justice Department were that having fired Comey, Trump might be coming for anyone else who could investigate him, so much so that he launched an investigation into Trump himself:
Former acting FBI director Andrew McCabe said in an interview that aired Thursday that he authorized an investigation into President Trump’s ties to Russia a day after meeting with him in May 2017 out of fear that he could soon be fired.
“I was very concerned that I was able to put the Russia case on absolutely solid ground in an indelible fashion that, were I removed quickly or reassigned or fired, that the case could not be closed or vanish in the night without a trace,” McCabe told CBS.
There’s some dispute about whether invoking the 25th Amendment was discussed seriously. But there’s no question that at the FBI — which, let’s not forget, may be the most politically conservative agency in the entire federal government — what happened during the campaign, as well as Trump’s own actions after becoming president, was so alarming that extraordinary measures to safeguard the U.S. government seemed like something that had to be considered.
And at every step along the way, when any sensible person would have exercised care and restraint, Trump has acted like a guilty man, lying about everything, launching screeching attacks on anyone who’s critical of him and saying those who cooperate with prosecutors are “rats.” It’s no accident that both Comey and McCabe came away from their conversations with him thinking that he reminded them of a mob boss.
Of all Trump’s manifold character flaws, his bottomless need for validation and the unhinged way he reacts to criticism may be what gets him in the most trouble. Again and again we’ve seen that the targets of his pressure tactics and attacks, rather than backing off, become more convinced that they have to hold him accountable. And there are only so many people he can fire.