Greg Miller is national security correspondent for The Washington Post, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the author of “The Apprentice: Trump, Russia and the Subversion of American Democracy.”
This isn’t how President Trump is depicted in a new book by former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe. Instead, it’s McCabe’s account of what it was like to work for then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The FBI was better off when “you all only hired Irishmen,” Sessions said in one diatribe about the bureau’s workforce. “They were drunks but they could be trusted. Not like all those new people with nose rings and tattoos — who knows what they’re doing?”
It’s a startling portrait that suggests that the Trump administration’s reputation for baseness and dysfunction has, if anything, been understated and too narrowly attributed to the president.
The description of Sessions is one of the most striking revelations in “The Threat,” a memoir that adds to a rapidly expanding collection of score-settling insider accounts of Trump-era Washington. McCabe’s is an important voice because of his position at the top of the bureau during a critical series of events, including the firing of FBI chief James Comey, the appointment of special counsel Robert S. Mueller, and the ensuing scorched-earth effort by Trump and his Republican allies to discredit the Russia probe and destroy public confidence in the nation’s top law enforcement agency. The work is insightful and occasionally provocative. The subtitle, “How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump,” all but equates the danger posed by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State to that of the current president.
But overall, the book isn’t the comprehensive account McCabe was presumably capable of delivering. He seems reluctant to reveal details about his role in conflicts at key moments, rarely shedding meaningful new light on areas of the Trump-Russia-FBI timeline established by Mueller, news organizations and previous authors.
McCabe is a keen observer of detail, particularly when it comes to the president’s pettiness. He describes how Trump arranges Oval Office encounters so that his advisers are forced to sit before him in “little schoolboy chairs” across the Resolute Desk. Prior presidents met with aides on couches in the center of the room, but Trump is always angling to make others feel smaller.
McCabe was known as a taciturn figure in the bureau, in contrast to the more garrulous Comey. His book reflects that penchant for brevity, with just 264 pages of text. Even so, he documents the president’s attempts to impair the Russia probe and his incessant attacks on the FBI, describing the stakes in sweeping, convincing language.
“Between the world of chaos and the world of order stands the rule of law,” McCabe writes. “Yet now the rule of law is under attack, including from the president himself.”
Inevitably, the book includes disturbing new detail about Trump’s subservience to Russian President Vladimir Putin. During an Oval Office briefing in July 2017, Trump refused to believe U.S. intelligence reports that North Korea had test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile — a test that Kim Jong Un had called a Fourth of July “gift” to “the arrogant Americans.”
Trump dismissed the missile launch as a “hoax,” McCabe writes. “He thought that North Korea did not have the capability to launch such missiles. He said he knew this because Vladimir Putin had told him so.”
McCabe, of course, has some baggage that hurt the reputation he’d built over 22 years at the bureau and raised questions about his credibility. He was accused by the FBI inspector general of making false statements about contacts with the media.
McCabe also has ample motivation to lash out at the president. He had been a target of Trump insults and taunts for nearly two years by the time he was fired, mainly because McCabe’s wife, a pediatrician, had run for state office in Virginia with the financial backing of longtime Clinton ally and former governor Terry McAuliffe.
Trump seized on the connection to insinuate that McCabe had stifled the bureau’s probe of Hillary Clinton’s emails — a claim debunked by internal FBI investigations. Trump seems never to have let go of the issue, even as he dangled the FBI director job before McCabe, sneering in one conversation that it “must have been really tough” when McCabe’s wife lost her race. “To lose,” Trump said, driving the dagger further. “To be a loser.”
When McCabe was finally forced out, it was in the most petty fashion possible. He was fired just 26 hours before his own self-declared retirement date. Trump was gleeful. “Andrew McCabe FIRED,” he tweeted. “A great day for the hard working men and women of the FBI.”
But for all of the understandable alarm and indignation that McCabe registers, he seems, like other Trump dissidents, never to have found reason or opportunity to stand up to the president. There are paragraphs in “The Threat” that recount in detail McCabe’s inner outrage — but no indication that those thoughts escaped his lips in the presence of Trump.
What is it that makes otherwise proud public servants, Comey included, willing to subject themselves to Trump-inflicted indignities? Deference to the office? A determination to cling to power? A view of oneself as an indispensable institutional savior? At one point, McCabe puts his odds of getting the FBI director’s position at “one-in-ten-million,” but he goes through a job interview with Trump that feels like a charade from the outset.
One of the most frustrating aspects of “The Threat” is that it steers around scenes where McCabe might have provided more detail or insight. He is known to have had a series of tense interactions with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in the aftermath of Comey’s firing, each suspicious of his counterpart and convinced that the other should recuse himself from the Russia probe.
McCabe was also witness to secret conversations in which Rosenstein raised the possibility that officials should wear a wire in meetings with the president. You won’t learn about any of that in “The Threat.”
McCabe skims over the conduct of two of his FBI subordinates, Lisa Page and Peter Strzok, whose text exchanges during an illicit affair included disparaging remarks about Trump and, when they were later revealed, fueled doubts about the organization’s impartiality.
When first confronted with the details of the Page-Strzok texts, McCabe was asked by the inspector general whether he knew that Page — his closest legal adviser — had had interactions with the press. McCabe said he didn’t, though in fact he had authorized those contacts. In the book, he downplays that false testimony as a momentary mental lapse during a confusing conversation — which sounds a lot like the excuses offered by countless defendants who find themselves being prosecuted by the FBI for lying.
McCabe’s disdain for Trump is rivaled only by his contempt for Sessions. He questions the former attorney general’s mental faculties, saying that he had “trouble focusing, particularly when topics of conversation strayed from a small number of issues.”
Logs on the electronic tablets used to deliver the President’s Daily Brief to Sessions came back with no indication he had ever punched in the passcode. The attorney general’s views on race and religion are described as reprehensible.
Sessions “believed that Islam — inherently — advocated extremism” and ceaselessly sought to draw connections between crime and immigration. “Where’s he from?” was his first question about a suspect. The next: “Where are his parents from?”
McCabe notes that he would like to “say much more” about his firing and questions of his candor toward other bureau officials, but that he is restrained from doing so because he is pursuing a lawsuit.
There is one area, however, in which he is considerably more forthcoming than Comey. He acknowledges that the bureau made major miscalculations in its handling of the Clinton probe in 2016 and its decision to discuss it publicly.
“As a matter of policy, the FBI does everything possible not to influence elections,” he writes. “In 2016, it seems we did.”
By Andrew G. McCabe
St. Martin’s. 274 pp. $29.99