For those of us who have yet to be convinced that our president is a compromised traitor operating as an agent of the Russian Federation, the occasional appearance of someone actually familiar with the investigation is a welcome respite from the incessant bombardment of “How guilty is he?” segments brought to us by our friends in the cable news industry every day for the last two years.
Every report of another campaign or administration official called to a special counsel interview instantly generates the production of completely unbiased, objective analysis from the CNN and MSNBC crowd: “Donald Trump cannot be happy with this one—he knows where all the bodies are buried”; “She knows everything that went on with the campaign—Trump’s got to be seething about this”; “If you’re Donald Trump, the last guy you want to see walking into that interview is this guy—he’s got nothing to lose and everything to gain by telling the truth.”
It’s all inevitably topped off with a crowd favorite: “The walls are really starting to close in now.” While I suppose these hyperbolic assertions are catnip to their respective demographic bases, they’re not particularly helpful to anyone interested in a fact-based assessment of what to expect from the hopefully imminent Mueller report.
So when we’re given an opportunity to hear from someone new—someone with unique insight into the origins of the investigation and the evidence that drove the decision-making in those early days—we pay attention. Such was the case when former acting and deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe took the stage last week, making the rounds of cable and network television shows to promote his new book, “Establishing the Narrative: Getting Ahead of the Investigation Into My ‘Lack of Candor’ and Making Some Money While I’m At It.”
McCabe’s tour was preceded by that of his former boss, James Comey, whose similarly titled book and powder-puffery performances on cable news sets in New York and Washington set the tone for all aspiring CNN national security analysts, who obviously took notes (as they do).
Andrew McCabe’s Big Media CYA Tour
McCabe touched all the bases, starting with the Big Reveal on “60 Minutes,” where he accidentally on purpose broke news with his totally unintentional revelation of alarming and unbalanced behavior by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who happened to play a principal role in the firing of both McCabe and his mentor.
McCabe fell victim to unrelenting pressure from “60 Minutes” correspondent Scott Pelley, whose concise questioning and follow-up left McCabe no choice but to give up the goods on Rosenstein’s talk of wearing wires and invoking the 25th Amendment to remove the president. While I don’t have the transcript in front of me, I believe Pelley’s question was, “This would be a good time to tell me the stuff about Rosenstein you said you wanted me to ask you about.” I could be wrong. It could have been, “Would you like another glass of water?”
In any event, McCabe’s studio tour included all of the usual suspects—“Anderson Cooper 360,” “The View,” “Good Morning American,” Andrea Mitchell, Stephen Colbert, et al.—all of whom watched the interviews preceding theirs, took notes, consulted with their staffs, reviewed transcripts of McCabe’s congressional testimony, identified areas of interest or conflict with facts known to them, and conducted probing, challenging interviews of the man who opened counterintelligence and obstruction of justice investigations on the president of the United States.
I’m kidding, of course. They didn’t do any of that. They all asked him the same questions, and he repeated the same answers he gave Pelley in his first interview.
Despite this collective display of dereliction, there were a number of items of interest to be gleaned from the McCabe tour, not least of which was his confirmation, albeit unintentional, that the FBI had no articulable, factual basis—including classified, non-public reporting—to open a counterintelligence or obstruction of justice investigation into Donald Trump.
Take It From McCabe’s Own Mouth
Asked in each interview to describe the factual basis that informed his decision to open the investigations, McCabe repeatedly listed the following: Trump was obviously unhappy with the ongoing investigation into ties between his campaign and Russia, and had tweeted his opinion that it was a “witch hunt”; Trump asked Comey to go easy on Michael Flynn, then fired Comey when he didn’t go easy on Flynn; and Trump told Lester Holt he had fired Comey because of the Russia investigation.
According to McCabe, after considering these factors, “We were in a position to say this is so clearly an articulable factual basis upon which to believe that a federal crime may have been committed and that a threat to national security exists, we are obligated to open up a case under these circumstances.”
Consider this exchange with Anderson Cooper, which is representative of what he repeated in all of his interviews when asked to describe his reasoning for opening the investigations on the president:
COOPER: The — you’ve said it wasn’t simply the Comey firing that led the FBI to open an investigation of the president. There were concerns whether or not he posed a national security threat, had it in your words been building for some time.
Are there other things that haven’t been made public at this point that contributed to the opening of the investigation of the president?
MCCABE: I’m not so sure that there are things that haven’t been made public, but I think the important thing is to think about — put yourself back in May of 2017 and the position of the investigators, right? The investigative team. And the things that are really standing out for them go back as far as the early fall, where we’re conducting the investigation.
From the very beginning, the president is referring to the investigation and our efforts, at least from the beginning of 2017, as a witch hunt, as a hoax. He’s continuously publicly undermining the effort that we’re undertaking. So, that causes you as an investigator to think, why is the president doing this? Clearly, he doesn’t like what we’re doing.
In addition to that, he approaches Director Comey and asks him to drop the case against Mike Flynn, which of course, we don’t do. And after Director Comey fails to drop that case, he is in fact fired. So, it’s like a series of building events and facts that ultimately when the director is fired, the president makes the comment about thinking about Russia when he fired the director, we were in a position to say this is so clearly an articulable factual basis upon which to believe that a federal crime may have been committed and that a threat to national security exists, we are obligated to open up a case under these circumstances.
Objectively speaking, for those of us wondering if there could be a chance that the FBI had some secret information that would lead them to believe that Trump was compromised and worthy of investigation, this one-minute exchange ended two years of speculation and convinced us that McCabe and the FBI had no more information available to them than we had available to us before they decided to move on the president. And the information McCabe calls an “articulable factual basis” to conclude that an investigation was necessary is not only insufficient on its face, but is also demonstrably not factual.
It Was All a Lie from the Very Beginning
Taking them in order, we’ll start with the fact that Trump was “referring to the investigation as a witch hunt, as a hoax.” McCabe tells us that, as an investigator, you have to ask yourself, “Why is the president doing this?”
I wrote about this very question a year ago in this article. The title is, “The Alternative Explanation for Trump’s “Collusion” behavior – He’s Innocent.” I’ll spare you the click with a quick summary: People who are falsely accused of being traitors to their country, particularly those who happen to be the president of that country, generally find repeated accusations like this to be worthy of rebuke, disdain, and harshly worded, combative responses.
The natural occurrence of this behavioral pattern isn’t a revelation, an industry secret, or a mystery to investigators such as those one would expect to encounter in, say, the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Innocent people take offense at allegations of their guilt and tend to lash out. Serious investigators with no agenda or preconception of where they’d like to take the case actively seek signs of this behavior and often attempt to provoke it by making accusations they know not to be true to establish a baseline of the subject’s demeanor when defending a known false accusation.
In any other case but this, McCabe would likely tell us that the combative and abusive nature of the subject’s remarks were consistent with behavior one would expect from an innocent man. But McCabe didn’t consider this option, apparently, when he asked himself, “Why is the president doing this?”
His next predicate was that Trump asked Comey to “drop the case on Flynn…and after Comey fails to drop that case, he is in fact fired.” Where to begin? First of all, here’s the exchange from Comey’s memo that informs McCabe’s assertion:
While one could quibble as to whether he technically asked Comey to “drop the case on Flynn,” we’ll stipulate for the sake of argument that he did. But it’s the next part of the McCabe statement that’s key to the absurdity, and belies the premise, of this particular “predicate”—the notion that Comey was fired “after Comey fails to drop the case,” with the obvious implication that he was fired, in part, because Comey failed to drop the case.
Flynn was fired on February 13, 2017. Comey met with President Trump the next day, February 14, during which time the exchange about Flynn occurred. Three days later, on February 17, CNN’s Evan Perez reported that the FBI had declined to prosecute Flynn, as they believed he had not intentionally misled the two FBI agents who questioned him in the White House at the end of January. Trump fired Comey three months later, in May.
Quite contrary to McCabe’s assertion, it appeared at the time to anyone following the news that Comey had, indeed, seen his way clear to “letting this thing go,” just as Trump had asked. The FBI didn’t recommend any charges, then leaked that information to the media, and the Flynn investigation went dormant until Mueller resurrected it eight months later and charged Flynn with lying to the agents that January day.
At the time Trump fired Comey, Flynn appeared to be in the clear. Thus, there is no factual, articulable reason to believe that Comey’s treatment of Flynn had anything whatsoever to do with his firing.
Of Course There’s More
Finally, McCabe identifies as one of his primary predicates Trump’s comments to NBC’s Lester Holt during an interview shortly after he fired Comey in May 2017. Of all of the easily refuted allegations, assumptions, and false assertions McCabe made, this is the most wildly misinterpreted, yet consistently cited example of “proof” that Trump fired Comey “to stop the Russia investigation.”
Here’s what I wrote about this allegation in this article last year:
While that statement [to Lester Holt] has become the touchstone for those arguing the obstruction case against Trump, an objective review of the entire interview provides equally compelling context to those willing to entertain the notion that Trump is innocent. Immediately before making the statement above, Trump said, ‘But regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey, knowing there was no good time to do it.’
Is it a sign of innocence or guilt that the suspect is aware his action would be viewed as suspicious regardless of if or when he did it, and he decided to do it anyway? Is it possible that the context of his ‘Russia thing’ quote was, ‘I know everyone’s going to jump up and down and scream ‘Russia obstruction,’ but I also know I had nothing to do with Russia so I just decided to do it’?…
Later in the interview, Trump said: ‘But I said to myself I might even lengthen out the investigation, but I have to do the right thing for the American people. He’s the wrong man for that position.’ Later still, asked by Holt whether he was sending a message to the eventual FBI director to ‘back off’ the investigation, Trump replied, ‘No, I’m not doing that. I think we have to get back to work. But I want to find out, I want to get to the bottom – if Russia hacked, if Russia did anything having to do with our election, I want to know about it.’
Finally, asked if he expected the next director to continue the investigation, he responded, ‘Oh yeah, sure, I expect that.’ If we are accepting the now-infamous ‘this Russia thing’ statement as a dispositive pull-quote to deploy any time someone suggests Trump’s innocence, what are we to do with the rest of these quotes? ..
Are we to discount everything else he said in that interview for the express purpose of preserving our interpretation of the one quote we’ve chosen to highlight, albeit without context? If you believe he’s guilty, of course you are. It only supports your assumption if taken alone. But if you assume he’s innocent, the context tells a different story, which is why most have probably never seen it before.
A year later, the Holt interview remains embedded in our conventional wisdom as Trump’s big admission that he fired Comey to stop the investigation. And now McCabe tells us that this false assumption informed his decision to investigate a sitting president based on McCabe’s working assumption, as he stated during a number of interviews on his book tour, that the president of the United States was acting as an agent of Russia.
If you only believe half of what you’ve read in this article concerning the demonstrable falsity of each of the predicates McCabe described as central to his assessment that Trump was a national security risk worthy of opening a full-blown FBI counterintelligence investigation, then you’d still have to agree that the actions McCabe took, with the approval of Rosenstein and the DOJ, constitute perhaps the most egregious, misinformed, and vindictive abuse of power in the modern history of the FBI (with the possible exception of the Carter Page FISA scandal).
McCabe repeatedly described the FBI’s standard bar for opening such an investigation as a collection of articulable facts which led them to believe that a crime had been committed or a national security threat exists. The assertions he cites in support of his actions, if actually true, would still fail to meet that bar. The fact that each of them is demonstrably false or misinterpreted speaks to a level of casual incompetence and dysfunction within FBI leadership that requires further investigation.
In a different time, the media would be out in front of such an investigation and following up on the glaring inconsistencies and alarming assertions McCabe provided in his interviews. That’s not the world we live in. Everything of interest we learned regarding the initiation of the investigation went unchallenged and left to linger in the air, perhaps in hopes or belief that just asking the question is good enough.
It’s not. Someone needs to challenge McCabe on the predicates he lists as material to his decision. Until then, those of us unconvinced that our president is an agent of a foreign power will continue to await evidence—articulable facts—that will change our minds.