The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Comey and McCabe, once strong defenders of each other, stake out opposite positions in burgeoning feud

Andrew McCabe, left, and James B. Comey.
Andrew McCabe, left, and James B. Comey. (Jahi Chikwendiu; Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Former FBI director James B. Comey and his top deputy, Andrew McCabe, once seemed to enjoy the kind of bond that can be forged only by going to battle together.

When President Trump unceremoniously fired Comey from the bureau, McCabe declared at a congressional hearing days later that it had been “the greatest privilege and honor in my professional life to work” under Comey’s leadership, and challenged the White House’s assertion that Comey had lost the faith of the bureau’s rank and file.

When McCabe was demoted from his own position in the FBI, Comey rushed to his defense on Twitter, asserting that McCabe “stood tall over the last 8 months, when small people were trying to tear down an institution we all depend on.”

Now, though, the once venerated G-men seem to be at odds, and some worry that their public dispute threatens to tarnish the institution they once served.

On Friday, Michael Bromwich, McCabe’s lawyer, said that McCabe, who once “looked up to Jim Comey,” was “very upset and disappointed” at seeing his former boss talk about him on TV. The comments came a day after Comey, who is in the midst of a publicity tour to promote his book, said on CNN he “could well be a witness” against McCabe if McCabe were ever charged and tried for misleading investigators about his role in a media disclosure.

The tension has become apparent since the Justice Department Inspector General’s Office alleged in a report made public last week that McCabe lied repeatedly to investigators, and to Comey, as they sought to determine who was responsible for a media disclosure.

The inspector general’s office referred its findings to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia for consideration of possible criminal charges. Its investigators also are examining the handling of memos Comey wrote following his interactions with President Trump, a frequent critic of both men. The FBI has determined that some of that information was classified, said a person familiar with the matter.

Trump has said on Twitter that Comey “just threw Andrew McCabe ‘under the bus.’ Inspector General’s Report on McCabe is a disaster for both of them! Getting a little (lot) of their own medicine?”

Inspector general report faults Andrew McCabe for unauthorized disclosure of information, misleading investigators

At issue is what McCabe told Comey — and when — about his role in authorizing the disclosure of information to Wall Street Journal reporter Devlin Barrett, who is now at The Washington Post.

Barrett wrote an Oct. 30, 2016, story about two of the FBI’s most high-profile investigations: the probe of Hillary Clinton’s private email server and a case involving The Clinton Foundation. The story, which McCabe authorized two FBI officials to participate in anonymously, revealed the existence of the Clinton Foundation probe, in part by detailing a call between McCabe and a Justice Department official over whether and in what form the investigation should be allowed to continue.

Comey told investigators McCabe led him to believe he had no role in authorizing that disclosure when, in fact, he did. The former FBI director repeated that claim on NPR, saying he was “quite confident,” in particular, that McCabe did not tell him after the Journal’s story had published of his role in it. Comey has said he authorized an investigation of leaks that ultimately led to McCabe.

At the press availability Friday, Bromwich disputed Comey’s account. He said while he was “not for a moment suggesting that Jim Comey is making things up or lying about Andy,” he believed that “Andy McCabe has a strong and clear recollection. Jim Comey does not.” McCabe, too, had the authority to authorize a media disclosure, though the inspector general said he was wrong to do so with the Wall Street Journal because he was trying to benefit his own reputation.

Bromwich said McCabe “believes it is more than likely” he told Comey “in advance” of the Wall Street Journal’s story that he had authorized FBI officials to describe the phone call. He said McCabe was “quite positive” he also told Comey after the story was published that he “had authorized the sharing of that information.”

“His memory is quite clear that he did inform Jim,” Bromwich said. “Jim’s memory is to the contrary, although as I said, the evidence that we’ve reviewed suggests that his memory was in fact uncertain.”

Lawyers for Comey did not return a message seeking comment. The inspector general came to believe Comey’s account, and McCabe is accused of other lies — though he also disputes those allegations. Bromwich said there exist two emails between McCabe and Comey that support McCabe’s version, though he acknowledged the emails were sent on Oct. 21 and 23, and were in reference to a different Wall Street Journal story about political donations McCabe’s wife had received from Terry McAuliffe, a Clinton ally.

Bromwich’s briefing for reporters ostensibly was to address questions on the inspector general’s findings and referral.

Bromwich said lawyers for McCabe had recently met with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and prosecutors were “in total listening mode.” He said the referral was “disappointing, but frankly not shocking,” and noted inspector general investigators only had to find “reasonable grounds to believe that a crime has been committed” to refer the case to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The inspector general, he asserted, had gotten its report “horribly wrong,” and unfairly accelerated its process to make sure McCabe could be fired from the FBI.

Though Bromwich sought to downplay the feud between his client and Comey, the former director’s book tour made doing so difficult. In various public appearances, Comey has done little to defend his former deputy, and he opined extensively in his book on how those who lie to federal investigators should face consequences.

The inspector general’s report, Comey’s book tour and the feud between the two men has left some former FBI officials fuming at the damage being done to the bureau’s reputation, and others wondering how a relationship that was once so strong could have fractured like this .

“I think the whole notion of writing a book and putting it on the shelves less than a year after he was fired, it is beneath the dignity of the position,” said former FBI assistant director Ron Hosko, adding, “This kind of collision of events is deeply, deeply distressing to those of us who spent decades there trying to do the right thing.”

Comey has not attacked McCabe’s character in public, but, relying largely on the inspector general’s conclusion, has been critical of McCabe’s conduct.

To NPR, Comey bluntly disputed McCabe’s characterization of one of their interactions, but declined to say if his firing was appropriate. Later on “The View,” he offered, “I still believe Andrew McCabe is a good person, but the inspector general found that he lied, and there’s severe consequences in the Justice Department for lying — as there should be throughout the government.”

Finally, on CNN, Comey said Thursday that he was “conflicted” about McCabe’s situation.

“I like him very much as a person, but sometimes even good people do things they shouldn’t do,” he said.

McCabe’s team had, even before the inspector general’s report was released, told investigators they were unfairly painting Comey as a “white knight carefully guarding FBI information, while overlooking that Mr. McCabe’s account is more credible.”

They said previously that emails between the two men “clearly show that Mr. McCabe specifically advised Director Comey that he was working with colleagues at the FBI to correct inaccuracies” in the story for which McCabe authorized information to be disclosed and “they remained in contact through the weekend while the work was taking place.” They said Comey had an “imperfect and inaccurate recollection” of events.