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Andrew McCabe, Ex-FBI Deputy, Describes 'Remarkable' Number Of Trump-Russia Contacts

Feb 17, 2019
Originally published on February 18, 2019 6:30 am

Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe condemned what he called the "relentless attack" that President Trump has waged against the FBI even as it continues scrutinizing whether Americans in Trump's campaign may have conspired with the Russians who attacked the 2016 election.

"I don't know that we have ever seen in all of history an example of the number, the volume and the significance of the contacts between people in and around the president, his campaign, with our most serious, our existential international enemy: the government of Russia," McCabe told NPR's Morning Edition. "That's just remarkable to me."

McCabe left the FBI after 21 years last March, when he was dismissed for an alleged "lack of candor" in a media leak probe unrelated to the special counsel investigation.

While he declined to conclude that Trump or his advisers colluded with Russia, McCabe said the evidence special counsel Robert Mueller has made public to date — including new disclosures about an August 2016 meeting between former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Konstantin Kilimnik, whom the FBI has linked to Russian intelligence — "is incredibly persuasive."

Trump goes back and forth about what he accepts about the Russian interference in the 2016 election but he denies that he or anyone on his campaign colluded with it.

The president and the White House also have focused their attention on McCabe's firing and what critics call the conflict of interest involved with McCabe's wife's political campaign — she ran unsuccessfully for the Virginia legislature as a Democrat.

The Putin presentation

McCabe's new book, The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump, describes the challenges and frustrations in interacting with the new president on sensitive national security matters.

Exhibit A: an FBI briefing with Trump that had "gone completely off the rails from the very beginning."

McCabe said the topic was supposed to be how Russian intelligence officers were using diplomatic compounds inside the U.S. to gather intelligence on American spy agencies. Those compounds were closed as part of the long diplomatic chill between the two countries.

"Instead the president kind of went off on a diatribe," McCabe told NPR, explaining that Trump changed the subject to his belief that North Korea had not actually launched any missiles because Russian President Vladimir Putin told him that the U.S. intelligence assessment was wrong and that "it was all a hoax."

The president, in short, was taking the word of Putin over his own top advisers.

"How do we impart wisdom and knowledge and the best of our intelligence assessments to someone who chooses to believe our adversaries over our intelligence professionals?" McCabe asked.

The investigations

McCabe became the FBI's acting director after his former boss, former Director James Comey, was fired in the spring of 2017. He returned to the deputy director role after Director Christopher Wray was confirmed that autumn.

McCabe confirmed that he opened counterintelligence and obstruction of justice investigations into Trump after Comey was fired but said he and Justice Department leaders ultimately rejected the idea of secretly recording the president.

FBI employees were crying in the hallways, McCabe writes in his book. No one knew whether Trump — whose campaign was being investigated about conspiring with Russia — might have been trying to decapitate the leaders of the investigation aimed at trying to find out what might be beneath it all.

The atmosphere at the Justice Department was so panicked, McCabe said, that the new deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, proposed wearing a recording device to collect evidence about Trump's intent in dismissing Comey.

"I was taken aback by the offer," McCabe said in his NPR interview. "I told him that I would consider it, I would discuss it with the investigative team, and I'd let him know. I did talk to my attorneys back at FBI headquarters about it."

When that story became public last year via a news report, Rosenstein was embarrassed and feared for his job. He also sought to make clear that he never actually went ahead with a secret recording — which is correct, McCabe said, because no one involved ever tried to attempt it.

"We all agreed it was a horrible idea and it was not something that we would pursue," McCabe said. "So while the deputy attorney general says he never authorized anyone to wear a wire, that is true — he never authorized it because we never asked him for that authorization."

McCabe says he was wrongly fired

On his own firing, just 26 hours before his federal law enforcement pension was set to vest, McCabe said he intends to sue the Trump administration for wrongful termination and other issues.

A man who fell in love with the FBI is now the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation for alleged false statements. A grand jury has been impaneled in the case but it isn't clear whether prosecutors will bring criminal charges.

McCabe refused to engage in his NPR interview over findings by the Justice Department's inspector general, calling that report a "selective presentation of evidence and conclusions designed to reach the result the president was clearly calling for."

Since the publication of excerpts and interviews surrounding McCabe's book have emerged, Trump has been tweeting to attack McCabe's credibility.

That's just more evidence, argued the former deputy FBI director, that he was singled out then and he's being singled out now.

But that's not just bad for him, he argued.

"The thing that concerns me going forward is firing me 26 hours before my retirement sends an unbelievably chilling message to the rest of the men and women of the FBI," McCabe said.

"It sends a message that if you stand up for what you think is right, and you do the right thing, and you honor your obligations to this organization and the Constitution, that you too could be personally targeted and lose those things that you've been building towards your whole career."

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More than 20 years ago, Andrew McCabe was a newly hired agent at the FBI. He investigated Russian organized crime groups in New York. Decades later, as acting FBI director, his investigations centered on a similar theme.

ANDREW MCCABE: The fact that I kind of finished my career on the same footing that I began it - looking at the pernicious influence of Russian money on American life and now, indeed, American politics - is just kind of a framing device that I couldn't have thought up if I was writing it in a novel.

MARTIN: Andrew McCabe has written a memoir of his experience. It's titled "The Threat," and a lot of it focuses on his final years at the FBI. He was deputy director of the agency under James Comey. He was present when Comey made controversial decisions about the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails. He was also involved as the agency investigated Russia's involvement in President Trump's election. And he told Steve Inskeep what happened next.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: In 2017, President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. McCabe became acting director. And he talked of that experience with two of us, meeting with NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson and me in our studios. He recalled that after Comey's firing, he was quickly summoned to the White House.

Did the president, in your mind, ask you for loyalty in the way we have heard that he asked James Comey for loyalty?

MCCABE: Not in the exact way that he asked James Comey. He asked Director Comey straight up, you know, I need somebody who's loyal. And so he did not use those words with me. But what he said to me - I mean, seconds after walking into the office and shaking his hand - he said, I heard you were a part of the resistance. You were one of those people who didn't agree with Director Comey and the decisions he made.

And I said, no sir, that's not true. I said, I've worked very closely with Jim Comey. I made all of those decisions last summer and in the Clinton case with Jim, and so I - that's not true. It was clearly not the answer he was looking for.

INSKEEP: Do you think that was a leading question, he was hoping that you would pledge loyalty in some way?

MCCABE: I - the way I see it now, Steve, I think that was his kind of saying, are you with us or are you against us? Are you on my team or are you on the other team? And he came back to that theme the next morning in our phone call, the next afternoon in our second meeting - that was just incredibly troubling.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Mr. McCabe, your description of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein during this period is anything but cool in the book. You talk about him being glassy eyed and in a panic at one point. What, in your assessment, was going through Rod Rosenstein's mind? And what did that tell you about the state of affairs in the country?

MCCABE: Well, I can't tell you what was in Rod's mind, but I can tell you that it was such an incredibly tumultuous time. I can't overstress the tension and the confusion and just how upside down the world was for all of us at that moment.

INSKEEP: This was the period in which there were people in the Justice Department meeting to discuss whether the 25th Amendment should be invoked?

MCCABE: Well, I don't know about that, Steve. The 25th Amendment was something that Rod brought up with me, in front of others, in a few of these meetings. He mentioned it as a way of, I think, commenting on, like, one - this is, you know, something that potentially could be considered. I just want to be clear though, at no time did I ever perceive that there was a legitimate effort underway by Rod or anybody else to remove the president under the 25th Amendment or in any other way.

JOHNSON: What about wearing a wire?

MCCABE: The comments about wearing the wire Rod raised with me, again, multiple times in front of other people. I did not perceive them at any moment to be made in jest or as a joke or sarcastically. He raised it as a way that we could potentially collect evidence about the president's intent in firing Jim Comey.

INSKEEP: This was wearing - having people wear a wire while speaking with the president of the United States?

MCCABE: Not people...

INSKEEP: Rosenstein himself.

MCCABE: ...Rosenstein himself wearing a wire. I was taken aback by the offer. I told him that I would consider it. I would discuss it with the investigative team, and I'd let him know. I did talk to my attorneys back at FBI headquarters about it. We all agreed it was a horrible idea, and it was not something that we would pursue.

So while the deputy attorney general says he never authorized anyone to wear a wire, that is true. He never authorized it because we never asked him for that authorization.

INSKEEP: Meaning that his seeming denial of this story is not actually a denial. You don't think he denied anything you just said?

MCCABE: I don't think he can.

INSKEEP: Of the many acts that we could explore during your time as acting director, there is an occasion you describe in which agents are sent to brief the president on a matter relating to Russia. There were a couple of Russian dachas or houses that had been closed in the United States - diplomatic facilities that had supposedly been used for espionage. There was a question about whether to reopen them. You sent some guys over to say what they knew. What happened in that briefing?

MCCABE: I relate that briefing in the book because I think it's such a clear example of the challenge of imparting intelligence to this president. We sent a briefer - I sent a briefer and a senior executive over to the White House to participate in that briefing. What I found out from that senior executive when they returned to FBI headquarters to let me know how things had gone was that they had gone pretty much completely off the rails from the very beginning. The president kind of went off on a - a diatribe on completely unrelated issues...

INSKEEP: Changed the subject to North Korea, if I'm not mistaken.

MCCABE: He did. He did. He changed the subject to North Korea and opined - well, he shared his belief that North Korea had not actually launched the missiles they had recently launched before that briefing - didn't believe they had the capacity to do so, and shared that he thought that because he had been told that by Vladimir Putin.

INSKEEP: Vladimir Putin told him that U.S. intelligence was wrong, it was all a hoax?

MCCABE: Well, all I can tell you is that's what he told the people at the briefing.

INSKEEP: Do you have any idea how it was that President Putin imparted that information to President Trump?

MCCABE: I do not. I do know that the briefers from other intelligence agencies shared with the president - on that occasion - that that assessment was contrary to all of our intelligence. And he - that's when he mentioned that he believed what Putin had to say.

INSKEEP: What did you think about when you learned this?

MCCABE: I just - it's a head-spinning moment, Steve. But this is - this is beyond just getting the attention of a - of a busy and maybe distracted president. This is, how do we impart wisdom and knowledge and the best of our intelligence assessments to someone who chooses to believe our adversaries over our intelligence professionals?

INSKEEP: Andrew McCabe, former deputy director and acting director of the FBI. He's written a book about his experience. He was fired from his job, accused of lacking candor about interactions with the media. And elsewhere in today's program, we question McCabe about the investigation into his actions. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.