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Andrew McCabe is taking on Trump. But we still don’t have the full story of his firing.

The former deputy FBI director’s new Washington Post op-ed is vague on a key point.

Then-acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, in July 2017. Trump’s Justice Department fired McCabe last week, a day before he was set to retire.
Alex Wong/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe is speaking out. One week after being fired by President Trump’s Justice Department the day before he was set to retire, McCabe has written an op-ed in the Washington Post with the eye-catching headline: “Not in my worst nightmares did I dream my FBI career would end this way.”

McCabe’s piece focuses mostly on how he got the news of his firing (he says he saw it on TV before seeing an email in his work account), President Trump’s personal attacks on him (which he calls “hurtful and false”), and why he joined the FBI in the first place (“a desire to do good”).

And this comes amid a PR effort from McCabe and his allies to portray his firing as corrupt. Earlier this week, anonymous sources told ABC News that early in 2017, McCabe had authorized a criminal probe of Attorney General Jeff Sessions regarding his statements about his contacts with Russian officials during his confirmation hearing. Though the investigation was soon taken over by Robert Mueller, the implication was that McCabe’s firing (ordered by Sessions) was hypocritical if not downright retaliatory.

But we’re still missing a very important part of this story: What, exactly, did McCabe say to the Justice Department’s inspector general that got him in so much trouble?

The Department of Justice says McCabe was fired at the recommendation of the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility based on findings by DOJ’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz — an Obama appointee who serves as an internal watchdog within the agency. Horowitz has been investigating leaks from the Justice Department and FBI during the 2016 campaign. His investigation started shortly before Trump’s inauguration.

And while Horowitz’s final report has not yet been released, Sessions’s office says the FBI office recommended McCabe’s firing because Horowitz found that McCabe “made an unauthorized disclosure to the news media and lacked candor — including under oath — on multiple occasions.”

McCabe’s op-ed is vague and unconvincing on what exactly happened here, dealing with it in just a single paragraph that claims that “because of what was going on around” him, he “may well have been confused and distracted” when answering the inspector general’s questions, and given answers that were “not fully accurate.”

But this is no minor matter. It’s crucial in determining what to make of McCabe’s dismissal. It’s entirely possible that despite Trump’s treatment of McCabe being indeed incredibly unprofessional and worrying, McCabe’s statements to the IG really were egregious. “Lacking candor” to an inspector general, “including under oath, on multiple occasions,” is quite bad and probably firing-worthy, if that is indeed what happened.

And what we already know McCabe did is questionable enough.

McCabe leaked information about the FBI’s Clinton Foundation investigation to a reporter just days before the 2016 election

On October 24, 2016, the Wall Street Journal’s Devlin Barrett published a story that got an enormous amount of attention on the right. The story revealed that McCabe’s wife had run for Virginia state Senate in 2015, and that Virginia’s Democratic governor, the longtime Clinton ally Terry McAuliffe, raised funds for her campaign. Barrett also pointed out that McCabe had a role overseeing the Clinton email investigation. (Trump would later cite this information repeatedly, both in public and private, as showing McCabe’s supposed corruption.)

Less than a week later, on October 30, Barrett published another Journal story. His sources describe, in some detail, interactions McCabe was said to have had with Obama Justice Department officials about an investigation of the Clinton Foundation. It portrays McCabe as heroically trying to keep this investigation moving forward, over an unnamed Justice Department official’s resistance.

The October 30 article was based on leaks — leaks that described internal deliberations about an ongoing investigation tied to a major-party presidential nominee — and came out just days before the presidential election. And these leaks were clearly designed to rehabilitate damage to McCabe and the FBI’s reputation. They are a key focus of the inspector general’s investigation.

And they were, in fact, leaks initiated by McCabe; in a statement McCabe released the night of his firing, he admitted as much. He claimed the leaks were authorized “under FBI rules,” and tried to portray his actions in a sympathetic light. He wrote:

I was being portrayed in the media over and over as a political partisan, accused of closing down investigations under political pressure. The FBI was portrayed as caving under that pressure, and making decisions for political rather than law enforcement purposes. Nothing was further from the truth. In fact, this entire investigation stems from my efforts, fully authorized under FBI rules, to set the record straight on behalf of the Bureau and to make it clear that we were continuing an investigation that people in DOJ opposed.

The OIG investigation has focused on information I chose to share with a reporter through my public affairs officer and a legal counselor. As Deputy Director, I was one of only a few people who had the authority to do that. It was not a secret, it took place over several days, and others, including the Director, were aware of the interaction with the reporter. It was the same type of exchange with the media that the Deputy Director oversees several times per week.

The less sympathetic interpretation would be that McCabe chose to leak his version of internal deliberations about an ongoing investigation tied to the Democratic presidential nominee to try to make himself and/or the FBI look better at the expense of Obama’s Justice Department, because he was annoyed at an earlier story that made him look bad. And, again, that he chose to do this just days before the presidential election.

The Justice Department claims McCabe didn’t fess up about his role in these leaks

On January 12, 2017, a little over a week before Trump’s inauguration, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz announced that he’d open a review of “allegations regarding certain actions” by the Justice Department and FBI “in advance of the 2016 election.”

The review was broad. It included then-FBI Director James Comey’s decisions to speak publicly about the Clinton email case, allegations that McCabe should have recused himself from Clinton investigations, and, more vaguely, “allegations that Department and FBI employees improperly disclosed non-public information,” among other matters.

We are still awaiting Horowitz’s final report. But we know that he or his investigators interviewed McCabe about that Wall Street Journal leak. And the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility is said to have concluded that Horowitz’s findings about McCabe were firing-worthy.

“The investigation subsequently focused on who I talked to, when I talked to them, and so forth,” McCabe said in his statement last week. “During these inquiries, I answered questions truthfully and as accurately as I could amidst the chaos that surrounded me. And when I thought my answers were misunderstood, I contacted investigators to correct them.”

In his new Post op-ed, he continues in this vein:

I have been accused of “lack of candor.” That is not true. I did not knowingly mislead or lie to investigators. When asked about contacts with a reporter that were fully within my power to authorize as deputy director, and amid the chaos that surrounded me, I answered questions as completely and accurately as I could. And when I realized that some of my answers were not fully accurate or may have been misunderstood, I took the initiative to correct them. At worst, I was not clear in my responses, and because of what was going on around me may well have been confused and distracted — and for that I take full responsibility. But that is not a lack of candor.

To be blunt: Many now defending McCabe would roundly mock a Trump ally citing a similar excuse for making misstatements to investigators. He gave “not fully accurate” answers because he was “confused” and “distracted” because of “what was going on around” him?

In any case, the competing claims are essentially as follows. The Justice Department says the IG found McCabe lacked candor on multiple occasions, including under oath, and that this was serious enough to merit his firing. McCabe says he unintentionally gave “not fully accurate” answers to the IG, but that he didn’t mean to and later tried to correct the record.

Neither of these competing claims gets into specifics about what McCabe said and why, exactly, it wasn’t accurate. The inspector general’s report will. And it could complicate the narrative among Trump’s critics that McCabe was corruptly pushed out.

It is certainly true that, as Ezra Klein and others write, Trump wanted McCabe gone for reasons having nothing to do with the IG’s investigation, and that members of Congress were also calling for McCabe’s head for largely political reasons. Still, this IG investigation was initiated by an Obama appointee, before Trump’s inauguration. And IGs traditionally proceed with a good amount of independence — they are the internal watchdogs charged with keeping departments honest.

If the recommendation for McCabe’s firing truly was based on some damning findings, Sessions was probably justified in carrying out that recommendation. Alternatively, it’s of course possible that Horowitz could have overreached. But it seems we’ll have to wait for his report to get some specifics of what actually happened when McCabe spoke to the IG.