President Trump escalated his assault on federal law enforcement agencies weekend while one of his attorneys argued that the controversial firing of a top FBI official was reason to end the Justice Department special counsel’s expansive Russia investigation.
After Attorney General Jeff Sessions acted late Friday night on Trump’s publicly stated wishes to fire former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe — just hours before he was set to retire with full benefits — the president celebrated the ouster as a triumph that exposed “tremendous leaking, lying and corruption” throughout law enforcement.
The move emboldened McCabe, who said in a public statement that his dismissal was a deliberate effort to slander him and part of an “ongoing war” against the FBI and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 elections.
Like former FBI director James B. Comey, who was fired by Trump last year, McCabe kept contemporaneous memos detailing his fraught conversations with the president, according to two people familiar with the records. The danger for Trump is that those memos could help corroborate McCabe’s witness testimony and become damaging evidence in Mueller’s investigation of whether Trump has sought to obstruct justice.
On Sunday morning, Trump commented on the memos in a tweet: “Spent very little time with Andrew McCabe, but he never took notes when he was with me. I don’t believe he made memos except to help his own agenda, probably at a later date. Same with lying James Comey. Can we call them Fake Memos?”
Trump asked McCabe in an Oval Office meeting in May whom he voted for in the election and complained about the political donations McCabe’s wife received for her failed 2015 Virginia state Senate campaign. In addition, Comey confided to McCabe about his private conversations with Trump, including when the president asked for his loyalty. Both had been probing links between Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russia.
McCabe’s firing — coupled with the comments from Trump and his personal attorney, John Dowd on Saturday — marked an extraordinary acceleration of the battle between the president and the special counsel, whose probe Trump has long dismissed as a politically motivated witch hunt.
Trump said in a Saturday night tweet: “The Mueller probe should never have been started in that there was no collusion and there was no crime. It was based on fraudulent activities and a Fake Dossier paid for by Crooked Hillary and the DNC, and improperly used in FISA COURT for surveillance of my campaign. WITCH HUNT!”
Dowd said in a Saturday morning statement, “I pray that Acting Attorney General Rosenstein will follow the brilliant and courageous example of the FBI Office of Professional Responsibility and Attorney General Jeff Sessions and bring an end to alleged Russia Collusion investigation manufactured by McCabe’s boss James Comey based upon a fraudulent and corrupt Dossier.”
Dowd’s defiance was a dramatic shift for a legal team that had long pledged to cooperate fully with Mueller. The White House has responded to requests for documents, and senior officials have sat for hours of interviews with the special counsel’s investigators.
The statement was first reported by the Daily Beast, which explained that Dowd said he was speaking on behalf of Trump. Dowd later backtracked, telling The Washington Post that he was speaking only for himself.
Trump has been known to direct surrogates to make bold claims publicly as a way of market-testing ideas. Dowd declined to say whether he consulted with the president before issuing his statement. “I never discuss my communications with my client,” he said.
White House officials had no comment as to whether Dowd’s statement was delivered at the behest of his client, but they insisted it was not part of a coordinated administration strategy, and one official described the statement as ill-advised.
Still, officials acknowledged that Trump shares his lawyer’s sentiment that the Mueller investigation should come to a swift conclusion.
“We were all promised collusion or nullification of his election or impeachment,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter. “We were promised something that never came to be.”
The official added that Trump “just thinks they should wrap it up. He sees it becoming a big fishing expedition.”
In a Sunday morning tweet, Trump accused Comey of lying in testimony to Congress as he was questioned by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa): “Wow, watch Comey lie under oath to Senator G when asked “have you ever been an anonymous source...or known someone else to be an anonymous source...?” He said strongly “never, no.”
Trump in the past has masqueraded as a fake publicist by the name of John Miller or John Barron to leak flattering or boastful details about himself to tabloid reporters.
For months now, the president has raged in private conversations with friends and advisers over the intensifying investigation. People familiar with his thinking said he has been especially agitated by Mueller’s probing into the financial and other records of his private business, the Trump Organization — an intrusion that he said in an interview last year would cross a red line.
Sessions fired McCabe as an outgrowth of an investigation by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, who is examining the FBI’s handling of its probe of former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. In the course of that broad review, Horowitz’s investigators found that McCabe had authorized two FBI officials to speak to the media about an ongoing criminal probe and then — in the investigators’ view — misled them about it.
White House officials said they did not believe Trump had explicitly ordered Sessions to fire McCabe in recent days. But he arguably did not have to: The FBI’s former No. 2 official had long drawn Trump’s ire, and the president has publicly called for his dismissal. Trump has been furious at Sessions for recusing himself from overseeing the Mueller probe. White House officials said the embattled attorney general is perpetually trying to prove his worth to Trump and had to have known that firing McCabe would please the boss.
Indeed, Trump hailed McCabe’s dismissal in a gleeful tweet at 12:08 a.m. Saturday as “A great day for Democracy.”
That drew a stern rebuke from former CIA director John Brennan, who responded on Twitter: “When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history. You may scapegoat Andy McCabe, but you will not destroy America ... America will triumph over you.”
After Dowd issued his statement Saturday, Trump reiterated his claim that there was “no collusion” between his campaign and Russians, and he attacked federal agencies that are under his command. But he stopped short of echoing Dowd’s call for an end to the Mueller probe.
Trump tweeted: “As the House Intelligence Committee has concluded, there was no collusion between Russia and the Trump Campaign. As many are now finding out, however, there was tremendous leaking, lying and corruption at the highest levels of the FBI, Justice & State. #DrainTheSwamp.”
Trump was referring to last week’s announcement by Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee that they were concluding their own investigation of Russian interference in the election, though a separate investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee remains underway.
In another tweet, Trump repeated his now-familiar attacks on McCabe and Comey. Some Trump allies said they worry he is playing with fire by taunting the FBI.
“This is open, all-out war. And guess what? The FBI’s going to win,” said one ally, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid. “You can’t fight the FBI. They’re going to torch him.”
Trump’s lawyers have long spoken privately about what they view as political bias inside the FBI and in the early stages of the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to two top White House advisers.
Since late summer, Dowd and attorney Jay Sekulow have warned the president about what they saw as mounting evidence of pro-Clinton bias among senior FBI officials. Trump took some comfort in their predictions that pieces of this information would surface publicly over time in inspector general reports and responses to public information requests.
Dowd and White House lawyer Ty Cobb have publicly asserted that they are working collaboratively and cooperatively with Mueller’s investigators, voluntarily providing dozens of witnesses and hundreds of thousands of pages of records. Dowd told The Post in January that Trump was providing the special counsel “the most transparent response in history by a president.”
But behind the scenes, Dowd has told colleagues that the probe was poisoned. He has blamed it on an anti-Trump faction of law enforcement officials he derisively calls “the Comey crowd,” which includes McCabe, who was Comey’s deputy when the FBI began investigating Russia’s intrusions and possible links to the Trump campaign.
Democrats on Saturday quickly rushed to protect the Mueller probe, as former national security officials defended McCabe’s character and raised questions about the manner in which he was fired.
Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, tweeted: “Every member of Congress, Republican and Democrat, needs to speak up in defense of the Special Counsel. Now.”
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) warned of “severe consequences from both Democrats and Republicans” should Trump try to curtail or interfere with Mueller’s investigation.
“Mr. Dowd’s comments are yet another indication that the first instinct of the president and his legal team is not to cooperate with Special Counsel Mueller, but to undermine him at every turn,” Schumer said in a statement.
McCabe’s firing just short of his 50th birthday on Sunday, is likely to cost him significant pension benefits. One House Democrat, Rep. Mark Pocan (Wis.), offered McCabe a job to work on election security in his office “so that he can reach the needed length of service” to retire.
The dismissal once again drew the FBI into a political controversy as those inside the bureau already fear the institution’s reputation may not survive unrelenting attacks from Trump and his allies.
“Certainly the FBI is in the barrel, and they badly want to get out of it — the workforce does,” said former FBI assistant director Ron Hosko. “But headlines like this are not the way out.”
Inside the FBI, the mood was tense this weekend, with some agents exchanging messages about how they might help McCabe and expressing anger at what they saw as a cruel and vindictive dismissal.
But McCabe was not universally loved inside the bureau. Some agents resented him for what they felt was a rapid rise through the ranks in his 22 years there. And officials noted that misleading investigators is a fireable offense, though they were curious about how the evidence would show McCabe had done so.
Horowitz, the inspector general, had been investigating broad allegations of misconduct in the Clinton email case since early last year, but he zeroed in on McCabe over the last few months.
McCabe, who briefly served as acting FBI director after Comey’s firing, technically stepped down from his deputy post after now-director Christopher A. Wray was told of what the inspector general had found.
McCabe remained an FBI employee, but the bureau’s Office of Professional Responsibility, which handles employee discipline, later recommended he be fired. The inspector general’s report has not been made public.
On Thursday, McCabe pleaded with Justice Department brass to be spared. Late into the evening Friday, top officials drafted their own report on what McCabe had done. Just before 10 p.m., it was emailed to him and his attorneys. Minutes later, Sessions announced McCabe had been fired, effective immediately.
McCabe countered with a lengthy statement Friday night claiming his innocence — and pledging to fight back against Trump.
“All along we have said nothing, never wanting to distract from the mission of the FBI by addressing the lies told and repeated about us,” McCabe wrote. “No more.”