Never before has the deputy director of the FBI been fired. Late Friday night, the Trump administration broke new ground.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions late Friday night accepted the recommendation that former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who took the reins of the agency during the turbulent days after the abrupt firing of James Comey, be terminated – two days before he was to retire and become eligible for full pension benefits.
Though McCabe – who has been attacked by President Donald Trump – stepped down as deputy director in late January, he remained on the federal payroll, planning to retire on Sunday. The firing places his federal pension in jeopardy.
The official rationale is that the Justice Department’s inspector general identified wrongdoing on McCabe’s part as part of the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails.
And while it’s entirely possible McCabe took steps he shouldn’t have – the full report has not yet been made available to the public – it’s difficult to take the official line seriously after seeing Donald Trump’s taunting end-zone dance over the weekend. The president’s critics responded to McCabe’s firing by arguing that the move appeared to be part of a politically motivated vendetta orchestrated by the Oval Office – and Trump took steps to prove his critics right.
The president celebrated McCabe’s firing as “a great day for democracy,” adding, “Sanctimonious James Comey was his boss and made McCabe look like a choirboy. He knew all about the lies and corruption going on at the highest levels of the FBI!” Trump also published a tweet with some demonstrably false Clinton-related conspiracy theories, insisting that McCabe was “caught, called out and fired.”
The FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility may have proposed the termination, but the president himself seemed to have no use for the fig leaf. Indeed, he never has: Trump has targeted McCabe personally for months. Friday night was simply the culmination of a petty and corrupt vendetta.
There’s no shortage of angles to this story, but as the dust starts to settle, here are a few things to keep in mind:
1. Attorney General Jeff Sessions keeps looking for ways to make the White House happy. Firing McCabe two days before his retirement seems to be part of a larger pattern in which the Alabama Republican prioritizes the president’s wishes.
2. In case anyone’s forgotten, the Justice Department’s decisions are supposed to be kept separate and independent from the White House’s political agenda. Trump World has taken a bulldozer to that firewall, and the president’s politicization of federal law enforcement remains one of his most serious official transgressions.
3. There is some irony in Sessions firing McCabe for a lack of “candor” given the attorney general’s own record. Indeed, didn’t the attorney general vow to recuse himself from decisions such as these?
4. McCabe, who was among the first to investigate the connections between the Trump campaign and its Russian benefactors, has already secured legal counsel of his own, and through his attorney, he said his firing was part of Trump’s “ongoing war on the F.B.I.” Given the president’s unprecedented offensive against the bureau, McCabe’s allegation seems very easy to believe.
5. It’s hardly a stretch to think Friday night’s move was intended to have a chilling effect throughout the executive branch: if Trump sees you as an adversary, your career and your benefits are at stake, so everyone better stay in line – or else.
Just as importantly, McCabe is a witness to possible presidential obstruction of justice, which necessarily makes him a target for Trump. We’ll have more on that angle a little later this morning.