The firing of Andrew McCabe shows President Trump has the upper hand in key battles with his opponents. For notwithstanding his ineptitude, lack of presidential temperament, chaotic White House and deep unpopularity, Trump is continuing to strengthen his grip on power.
The McCabe case illustrates the fundamental asymmetry between Trump and his critics. For anti-Trump commentators and activists who embrace the rule of law as the central tenet of their resistance to the president, McCabe is problematic. According to reports of the findings of well-regarded Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz, McCabe wrongfully leaked details of the investigation of Hillary Clinton, then was not fully candid with investigators about it. If true, this is not the sort of conduct that “rule of law” advocates are comfortable defending.
Which brings us to Trump’s two advantages over his opponents. First, until the details of McCabe’s case are public, many Trump critics have been restrained in their reaction to McCabe’s firing. They want to reserve judgment until the facts are in; they want to assess McCabe’s actual culpability before taking up his case.
But Trump is not similarly constrained in smearing McCabe and regaling in his ouster. Trump called McCabe’s firing — executed by an attorney general under pressure to appease his boss — “a great day” and a reflection of the “lies and corruption going on at the highest levels of the FBI.” This was at least his sixth tweet about McCabe in recent months, leaving no doubt about Trump’s grudge against the career FBI agent whom Trump has maligned with a long list of false accusations.
McCabe has professed his innocence, and the Justice Department inspector general has neither confirmed nor denied public reports of his findings. Weeks or months from now we may find, as McCabe claims, that he did nothing wrong. But by then the swirl of Trumpism will have moved on. By the time the fact-based opposition has what it needs to defend McCabe, the next of Trump’s victims will be “in the barrel,” to use Roger Stone’s famous phrase.
And what if McCabe did do something wrong in authorizing FBI officials to talk to a reporter, or while answering questions from investigators looking into the matter? Here is Trump’s second advantage: the fact that almost every person who stands up to Trump will, themselves, be imperfect, be vulnerable to investigation, have made mistakes — that is to say, human.
As Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt point out in their book, “How Democracies Die,” modern authoritarian leaders do not consolidate power by coming after wholly innocent people: They exploit the fact that almost every person with a long public career — those who could be a check on the leader’s power — has done something wrong, or something that can be cast as wrong, if scrutinized in a certain way. Former FBI director James B. Comey — fired for refusing to bend to Trump’s will — made substantial and hugely consequential mistakes in handling the 2016 investigation of Hillary Clinton. Rex Tillerson — fired just hours after being the first senior U.S. official to join Britain in sharply criticizing Russia — probably was the worst secretary of state in modern history. The list goes on.
They, and others, may well have deserved to face some consequence, perhaps even to have their government service ended. But, in the era of Trump, that is not the right question.
In these instances, we need to ask not whether an individual did something wrong; the question is whether there is any reason to believe that is why Trump took action. In McCabe’s case, the answer is obvious.
From Trump’s own words, it is clear that he had McCabe fired not for anything he did wrong, but for what he did right: His refusal to pledge political loyalty to Trump, his determination that the investigation of Trump and his campaign continue without compromise, and his testimony to the House Intelligence Committee corroborating Comey’s damning account of Trump’s obstruction.
McCabe’s firing serves Trump’s purposes, whether or not McCabe did anything wrong. And every FBI agent investigating matters that Trump finds uncomfortable, every intelligence officer reporting on Russian efforts to corrupt our democracy, every career civil servant doing his or her duty in the face of political pressure has been sent a chilling message: Cross the president at your peril. He will single you out, he will harass you publicly, he will find a way to end your career. He may even deny you a pension you have spent decades earning through selfless public service.
This, then, is the challenge that confronts Trump’s opponents dedicated to protecting the rule of law from his political power. Standing up to Trump may indeed involve standing unequivocally with imperfect people, people who may have done something wrong — to stop the president from perpetrating an even bigger wrong, with an even greater cost to our system.
I stand with Andrew McCabe.