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Former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe vs. President Trump, explained

The 25th Amendment, “I believe Putin,” a leak investigation, and more.

Andrew McCabe, testifying as acting FBI director in June 2017.
Andrew McCabe, testifying as acting FBI director in June 2017.
Pete Marovich/Getty Images
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, who was fired last year, is relitigating some of the most bitter controversies of the Trump administration in a new media tour.

For the first time, McCabe is publicly giving his version of the tumultuous days after President Donald Trump fired his boss, FBI Director James Comey, in May 2017. In an interview with 60 Minutes, McCabe confirmed that he had opened a counterintelligence investigation into whether Trump was compromised by Russia. He also said Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office.

Unsurprisingly, McCabe is also offering many unflattering anecdotes about and scathing criticisms of the president, including telling 60 Minutes that, in one meeting, Trump said he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assurance that North Korea couldn’t hit America with missiles. When told that US intelligence agencies had a different assessment, McCabe claims Trump said, “I don’t care. I believe Putin.” (McCabe was not in the room but heard about this exchange from an FBI agent.)

Trump responded with fury Monday morning, calling the reported 25th Amendment discussion “a very illegal act” and quoting a commentator on Fox News calling it “an illegal coup attempt on the President of the United States.”

McCabe has gone public to promote his new book: The Threat: How the F.B.I. Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump, which has been excerpted in the Atlantic. However, according to the New York Times’s Dwight Garner, these controversies are not actually mentioned in the book itself. (McCabe spent months wrangling with the FBI about what he’d be permitted to include.)

Meanwhile, McCabe may also be in legal trouble. The Justice Department’s inspector general concluded that he displayed a “lack of candor” when questioned as part of a leak investigation, and referred him for potential criminal prosecution. (The leak in question was not about Trump but rather pertained to a Clinton investigation.) The Justice Department cited the IG’s findings in firing McCabe, though McCabe says he thinks he was really fired for investigating Trump.

There’s a lot to unpack here: McCabe and Trump’s complicated history, the specific claims about Rosenstein and the 25th Amendment, and McCabe’s own legal issues.

But overall, McCabe’s comments make it even more clear that Trump’s decision to fire Comey continues to loom large as a turning point in his presidency. His new public remarks don’t contain new bombshells or hint at what special counsel Robert Mueller has found, but they do shed more light on a period of remarkable chaos in May 2017.

Who is Andrew McCabe?

McCabe first joined the FBI in 1996. In a two-decade career, he held various roles on organized crime, counterterrorism, and national security investigative teams. Eventually, in January 2016, James Comey chose McCabe to be his new deputy director, announcing that he’d oversee all of the bureau’s “domestic and international investigative and intelligence activities.”

This new gig would mean McCabe would end up playing important roles in every high-profile political investigation of that intense year: the Hillary Clinton email probe, an investigation into the Clinton Foundation, and the eventual probe of Trump associates’ ties to Russia.

McCabe’s role in the Clinton probes led to controversy, because his wife Jill had run for state senate in Virginia the previous year and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from the state’s governor Terry McAuliffe, a longtime close friend and ally of the Clintons. Conservatives asserted McCabe was politically biased and would have tried to protect Clinton at the FBI (though there’s been no evidence of improper activity by McCabe in either Clinton probe).

In an apparent effort to defend his reputation, McCabe authorized leaks to Wall Street Journal reporter Devlin Barrett. Barrett’s eventual story portrayed McCabe as trying to push forward the Clinton Foundation investigation, over resistance from an Obama Justice Department official. The story came out on October 30, 2016, just days before the election. The investigation into how it leaked would eventually ensnare McCabe, but it’s important to note that this leak was not designed to hurt Trump, but instead portrayed a Clinton investigation as serious and made Obama officials look bad.

Andrew McCabe in the Trump administration

Andrew McCabe and James Comey.
The Washington Post/Getty Images

McCabe continued in his role as Comey’s deputy in the early months of the Trump administration. But Trump clearly never trusted McCabe — he was well aware of the controversy over McCabe’s wife’s campaign, and even brought the matter up to Comey. Trump, of course, soon grew to distrust Comey as well, after the FBI director publicly confirmed the investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

So, on May 9, 2017, Trump fired Comey. This was a stunning breach of political norms, both because the FBI director traditionally serves a set 10-year term, and because Comey’s FBI was investigating people close to Trump himself. Trump would nominate a new FBI director soon enough, but for now, that meant Comey’s deputy — McCabe — would be in charge of the bureau as acting director.

But as the Russia probe continued and intensified with the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller, Trump went to war with his own Justice Department. That put McCabe in his sights. Trump repeatedly attacked McCabe (again, over his wife’s campaign money) and openly called for his ouster. The attacks continued after Chris Wray was confirmed as FBI director, and McCabe returned to his deputy role. (Some have argued that Trump was trying to discredit several FBI officials who could be witnesses against him in an obstruction of justice case, including McCabe.)

This is when the leak investigation became a problem for McCabe. Earlier in the year, internal investigators had asked McCabe how the story about the Clinton Foundation investigation got out, and he’d told them he didn’t know. But in July 2017, the Justice Department inspector general obtained new evidence suggesting that McCabe was involved. He changed his story, but the IG still believed he wasn’t being candid.

McCabe’s position was untenable, and word got out that he planned to retire — but only once he became fully eligible for his pension, in March. But, a little more than 24 hours before that was about to happen, the Justice Department fired McCabe, citing the inspector general’s findings in the leak investigation. (The consequence is that McCabe won’t be able to draw on his pension for several years.)

That timing raised questions of potential retribution — particularly because the inspector general report wasn’t yet finished, and because the president himself had once made clear that McCabe’s retirement benefits were on his mind.

Eventually, though, the IG released his findings and referred McCabe for potential criminal charges (though none have yet been brought).

What McCabe is saying now

Since his firing, McCabe has issued occasional public statements through a spokesperson, but this is the first time he’s going public to tell his version of events at length — and, of course, to promote his newly released book.

McCabe isn’t revealing much that’s entirely new, but he has become the first person to publicly confirm some anonymously-sourced reports about the tumultuous Justice Department discussions in mid-May 2017, after Trump fired Comey.

By McCabe’s telling, he had many reasons to be deeply suspicious of Trump at this point. The president had asked Comey to drop an investigation into Michael Flynn’s statements to investigators about Russia. Then he fired Comey. And, after the firing, Trump flat-out told NBC News that the Russia probe was indeed on his mind when he fired Comey.

Fearing a corrupt cover-up, McCabe and his team moved quickly. They opened two investigations into the president — one into potential obstruction of justice, and one into whether he personally was compromised by Russia. (The previous Russia investigation was focused on several Trump campaign advisers, not the president himself.)

During these frenzied mid-May days, McCabe was also meeting with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — the top Justice Department official overseeing the Russia probe, due to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s recusal. Rosenstein was new to the job, and, according to McCabe’s account — memorialized in contemporaneous memos — he made a pair of eyebrow-raising suggestions.

First, Rosenstein suggested that he’d be able to secretly record the president, because no one searches him when he goes to the White House. The apparent goal of this would have been to obtain evidence of the president’s private Russia-related or obstructive statements. But it was never carried out, so far as we know.

Second, and most controversially, McCabe claims Rosenstein discussed possibly using the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office.

What we know about the 25th Amendment discussion

McCabe (left) and Rod Rosenstein
McCabe (left) and Rod Rosenstein
Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty

Section 4 of the 25th Amendment to the US Constitution lays out a process by which the vice president and various members of the Cabinet could remove the president of the United States from office. (It’s never been invoked, but I have a longer explainer on how it would work.)

And in McCabe’s telling, Rosenstein was the person who suggested it as a possibility for ousting Trump, as the Justice Department and FBI were strategizing about how to respond to Comey’s firing. McCabe told 60 Minutes:

Discussion of the 25th Amendment was simply, Rod raised the issue and discussed it with me in the context of thinking about how many other cabinet officials might support such an effort. I didn’t have much to contribute, to be perfectly honest, in that— conversation. So I listened to what he had to say. But, to be fair, it was an unbelievably stressful time. I can’t even describe for you how many things must have been coursing through the deputy attorney general’s mind at that point. So it was really something that he kinda threw out in a very frenzied chaotic conversation about where we were and what we needed to do next.

All this was originally reported by the New York Times last September, and Rosenstein didn’t really deny it. (Rosenstein issued a statement saying, “Based on my personal dealings with the president, there is no basis to invoke the 25th Amendment,” which is ... not a denial.) In any case, it does appear that whatever discussion that did take place about the 25th Amendment was brief: Eight days after Comey was fired, Rosenstein appointed Mueller as special counsel to take over the Trump investigations.

Internally, this may have been viewed as simply one idea in a brainstorming session about what should be done about a president who may have been corrupt or compromised. But to Trump’s supporters, this looks a whole lot like a “deep state” coup — the Justice Department scheming to oust an elected president because he fired the FBI director. Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Lindsey Graham pledged this weekend to investigate what happened.

McCabe, perhaps alarmed by the coverage his comments were getting, had his spokesperson issue a statement trying to minimize them: “To clarify, at no time did Mr. McCabe participate in any extended discussions about the use of the 25th Amendment, nor is he aware of any such discussions.”

There has, however, been much speculation about McCabe’s own reasons for making this public in the first place. McCabe is said to have bitterly feuded with Rosenstein, and to believe that Rosenstein threw him under the bus regarding the leak investigation and his eventual firing. Some believe he’s trying to politically damage Rosenstein (who himself is on his way out).

Overall, McCabe’s comments make it even more clear that Trump’s decision to fire Comey continues to loom incredibly large as a turning point in his presidency. It evidently caused immense concern within the Justice Department about the president and his motives — to the extent that a historically unprecedented move was discussed. And then it led to the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller, and the investigation that has loomed over Trump ever since.

For more on the Mueller probe, follow Andrew Prokop on Twitter and check out Vox’s guide to the Trump-Russia investigation.