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FBI's McCabe, a frequent Trump target, is stepping down

One of Donald Trump's targets at the FBI was Deputy Director Andrew McCabe -- whose career has come to an abrupt end.
(FILE) Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on the 'Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act' in the Hart Senate office Building in Washington, DC, June 7, 2017.
(FILE) Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on the 'Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act' in the Hart Senate office Building in Washington, DC, June 7, 2017.

By the halfway point of Donald Trump's first year in office, the new president had already identified several federal law-enforcement officials with whom he wasn't pleased.

Near the top of the list was FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, whom the president appointed to lead the bureau temporarily after firing James Comey, but whom Trump routinely attacked because his wife ran for office a few years ago as a Democrat. (The FBI scrutinized the allegations against McCabe and determined the deputy director didn't have any conflicts of interest, the president's attacks notwithstanding.)

It didn't help matters that Trump reportedly asked McCabe how he voted in the 2016 campaign during a meeting held after Comey's ouster.

As of today, in a move that the White House will no doubt like, McCabe is stepping down from the FBI.

FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who has been attacked by President Donald Trump, stepped down Monday, multiple sources familiar with the matter told NBC News.McCabe will remain on the FBI payroll until he is eligible to retire with full benefits in mid-March, the sources said. One source said McCabe was exercising his retirement eligibility and characterized his decision as "stepping aside."

A New York Times  report, which includes details that haven't been independently confirmed by NBC News, added that as recently as last week, McCabe had told people he hoped to stay at his post until March. His sudden departure, the article added, was the result of "pressure" from FBI Director Christopher Wray, who was chosen by Trump.

The Times' report added that McCabe was offered a different position, "which would have been a demotion." Instead, he left.

Asked about Trump's possible involvement in these developments, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters earlier that the president "didn't play a role in any of that process." Whether that's true or not remains to be seen.

The larger trend is nevertheless clear: there's a partisan push underway to create more favorable conditions for Trump among federal law enforcement officials.

Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), who serves on the House Intelligence and Judiciary committees, told MSNBC that if McCabe was departing "for any reason other than personal, this is going to be a problem" because of the president's "desire to remove people who he perceives to stand in the way of him being cleared in the Russia investigation."

There are several angles to a story like this -- it's a safe bet Rachel will be covering the subject on tonight's show -- including the fact that the FBI, which is supposed to be operating free of political pressure, didn't exactly go out of its way to protect McCabe from presidential tantrums.

But I want to take a moment to highlight a story from last week's show -- a thesis Murray Waas picked up on in a piece for Foreign Policy -- about some key witnesses to a possible crime.

Early on in Trump's presidency, he allegedly asked then-FBI Director James Comey to go easy on Michael Flynn, the former White House national security advisor. Comey, recognizing the importance of a president possibly obstructing justice during an ongoing investigation, informed a small group of officials.

At the top of the list, obviously, was Comey himself, whom Trump fired in the hopes of derailing the Russia investigation. Then there's Jim Baker, the former FBI general counsel who's still with the FBI, but who's also been ousted from his senior position at the bureau. There's also Jim Rybicki, a two-time chief of staff to the FBI director, who recently left his position.

And there's Andrew McCabe, who's now stepping down from his post as the FBI's deputy director.

Of the six people that we know of who were in the loop with information about Trump's possible obstruction, four have either been sidelined at the FBI or are out of their jobs altogether.

Postscript: I wonder what morale is like within the FBI right now. I also wonder what officials throughout the bureau have been led to believe about the FBI's independence from political pressure, and whether bureau leaders will have officials' backs in the event of attacks from Trump.