CNN host Chris Cuomo on Monday night wished to press his guest, conservative pundit Matt Schlapp, on a sketchy story from the White House. Toward the end of the Group of Seven summit in Biarritz, France, Trump missed a meeting with his counterparts on climate change, on the rationale that he had “meetings and bilaterals” with Germany and India instead, according to a White House aide.
That statement didn’t withstand scrutiny.
“They lied to us about why he didn’t go to the meeting. Why?” Cuomo asked Schlapp, who is chairman of the American Conservative Union. After considerable back-and-forth, Schalpp declared, “I’m not going to condemn them for lying,” and wondered why he was being asked to play truth referee. As Cuomo persisted with his line of questioning, the following exchange took place:
CUOMO: I’m saying I don’t like the White House lying to the American people, makes it very hard … to talk about policy.SCHLAPP: Chris, I don’t like … I don’t like it when Andrew McCabe lied, either. And so, I don’t think that we should —CUOMO: But he’s not my President. … He’s not my president. And he was punished.[…]SCHLAPP: He’s getting rewarded, too.CUOMO: Oh, why? Because he works at CNN?SCHLAPP: Well I’m just saying, look, you shouldn’t get on your high horse about who’s lying and not lying.
Conservative commentators on CNN will likely copy Schlapp’s polemical handiwork, because it is 100 percent legitimate. A February 2018 report from the Justice Department’s inspector general found that McCabe, when serving as a top FBI official, “lacked candor” on four occasions when discussing his role in a disclosure to then-Wall Street Journal reporter Devlin Barrett in October 2016. Last week, CNN hired him as a contributor anyhow.
Based on McCabe’s candor shortages, the Justice Department is close to a decision on seeking an indictment against him, according to a Monday story by Adam Goldman of the New York Times. “An indictment of a former top F.B.I. official is extremely rare and would be the latest chapter in the saga of Mr. McCabe, who was fired last year over the issue now under criminal investigation — whether he failed to be forthcoming with internal investigators examining the F.B.I.’s dealings with the news media,” writes Goldman, who reported that McCabe’s lawyers have been meeting with top-level Justice Department officials — a possible indication that they failed to persuade prosecutors to bail on the case.
Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes shows that criminal prosecution of an FBI official for misleading colleagues would depart from precedent. “There are countless public cases of gross misconduct and lies about that misconduct that are routinely declined as criminal matters,” notes Wittes, who supplies a healthy list of examples.
But an overzealous prosecution provides no shelter to CNN. When the Erik Wemple Blog last week sought comment on the move, the network responded with a background statement reciting McCabe’s résumé. One key part of that CV is McCabe’s experience with the Justice Department’s inspector general. The details of that episode furnish important context for his hiring at CNN. So here goes:
The story begins in late October 2016, as the Wall Street Journal’s Barrett was digging into big stories at the junction of politics and law enforcement. One of those stories related to a conflict of interest at the FBI. McCabe’s wife, Jill McCabe, had waged a losing campaign for a state Senate seat in Virginia. As part of that effort, she had received nearly $500,000 from the political action committee of then-Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe — who’d been a board member at the Clinton Foundation.
After Barrett finished that piece, he moved on to something deeper. He had sources who were “adamant,” according to the inspector general’s report, that “McCabe gave a purported order to ‘stand down’ on the [Clinton Foundation] Investigation before the 2016 presidential election, implying that McCabe wanted to shut down the investigation for improper reasons.” McCabe authorized FBI lawyer Lisa Page to disclose information to Barrett to counter that impression. It worked, as Barrett’s Oct. 30 article contained this insider’s account: “According to a person familiar with the probes, on Aug. 12, a senior Justice Department official called Mr. McCabe to voice his displeasure at finding that New York FBI agents were still openly pursuing the Clinton Foundation probe during the election season. … ’Are you telling me that I need to shut down a validly predicated investigation?’ Mr. McCabe asked, according to people familiar with the conversation. After a pause, the official replied, ‘Of course not,’ these people said.”
The authorized leak enlarged McCabe’s reputation. But it also upset top FBI officials, including then-Director James B. Comey. The day after the Wall Street Journal article, Comey stressed to his colleagues the importance of stanching the leaks. Also on that same day, McCabe met with Comey in person. When later questioned about this meeting, McCabe said that he’d disclosed to Comey that he’d authorized the disclosure and said that Comey responded that it was a good idea.
No way, Comey told investigators. Instead of confessing to his authorization, recalled Comey, McCabe left him with a far different impression. “I don’t remember exactly how, but I remember some form or fashion and it could have been like ‘can you believe this crap? How does this stuff get out?’ kind of thing. But I took from whatever communication we had that he wasn’t involved in it.” The inspector general’s report rules heavily in favor of Comey’s version of events, considering that the former FBI director had previously refused to acknowledge the mere existence of the Clinton Foundation investigation; that he deplored the leak in a staff meeting; and other considerations.
The rest of the inspector general’s report does McCabe few favors. It states that McCabe:
- Berated high-level colleagues about leaks at the same time that he’d authorized a significant disclosure of his own. On this point, the inspector general’s report speaks powerfully to the hypocrisy and shiftiness at play: “Two FBI Executives … told us that they each received calls from McCabe admonishing them for leaks contained in the October 30 WSJ article about the [Clinton Foundation] Investigation. At no time did McCabe disclose to either of them that McCabe had authorized [Page] to disclose information about the [Clinton Foundation] Investigation to the WSJ reporter.” The story doesn’t end there. On Nov. 3, the Wall Street Journal published another article by Barrett that reprised some of the information whose release McCabe had authorized. Yet McCabe scolded a colleague, whose notes from the conversation are published in the report and commemorate McCabe’s message: “will be consequence[s] and get to bottom of it post elect[ion]. Need leaks to stop. Damaging to org.”
- Told officials with the FBI’s inspection division in May 2017 that he didn’t authorize the Wall Street Journal disclosure and didn’t know who did;
- Told the Justice Department’s inspector general in July 2017 that he wasn’t aware of Page’s having been authorized to speak to the media;
- Made other false statements to the Justice Department’s inspector general in November 2017.
According to the report, McCabe did set the record straight when he called up an official at the inspector general’s office. “McCabe stated that he believes that [Page] may have been authorized by him to work with [AD/OPA] and to speak with the WSJ for the late October article,” notes the report.
Based on the candor insufficiencies, the Justice Department fired McCabe in March 2018. His lawyer said that the findings “are more properly understood as the result of misunderstanding, miscommunication, and honest failures of recollection based on the swirl of events around him.” McCabe has sued the FBI and the Justice Department over his dismissal.
These events would undergird any indictment against McCabe. To understand their implications for CNN’s decision to hire the former FBI official, consider the network’s calling card in the age of Trump. It’s all about truth and the facts. Trump abuses them; CNN upholds them. “He lies all the time,” said host Chris Cuomo in a March segment. “Trump’s lies are getting bolder and the press is stuck in the middle,” reads the headline on a July article by Brian Stelter, whose “Reliable Sources” show has returned again and again to the topic of the president’s mendacity. CNN recently hired fact-checking superstar Daniel Dale, who specializes in quick and definitive Trump-debunkings.
Four years of truth-squadding Trump, you might suppose, would vest CNN with a firm aversion to hiring people with credibility problems. Apparently not, however. We asked CNN if those who hired McCabe reviewed the inspector general’s report, among other inquiries. The network didn’t provide an on-the-record response.
This month, Fox News announced the hiring of former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders as a contributor, despite her lies from the White House lectern. In a Sunday segment on "Reliable Sources,” Stelter asked guest commentator Irin Carmon whether critics were correct to equate these two cable-news moves. “Of course there’s a difference,” responded Carmon. “Andrew McCabe is going to bring serious expertise with respect to the FBI and investigations. And he in no way was accused of standing in front of the American people and lying to them. He was accused of lack of candor in talking about talking to the press.” As standards go, this one is a doozy: McCabe merely lied to his colleagues about a matter of great public interest, so it’s fine that CNN hired him.
Sure, it’s fine — so long as CNN anchors don’t mind getting buried by Trumpites every time they make an issue of public integrity. There’s no argument here that McCabe’s wrongdoing matches the pathological mendacity of Trump or the versatile mendacity of Sanders — just that he’s sufficiently discredited to keep off the CNN payroll. Is that too much to ask?