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Justice Department Fires Embattled FBI Deputy Director Just Short Of Retirement

FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe's dismissal on Friday, just days before he was set to retire, puts his full pension and benefits package in jeopardy.
Alex Wong
Getty Images
FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe's dismissal on Friday, just days before he was set to retire, puts his full pension and benefits package in jeopardy.

Updated at 12:30 a.m. ET Saturday

Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired outgoing FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe on Friday even though he was on the doorstep of retiring and receiving his pension after two decades of service to the bureau.

President Trump responded on Twitter just after midnight Saturday, calling McCabe's firing "a great day for the hard working men and women of the FBI - A great day for Democracy."

The attorney general accepted an internal FBI recommendation that "concluded that Mr. McCabe had made an unauthorized disclosure to the news media and lacked candor − including under oath − on multiple occasions," Sessions said in a statement.

The internal FBI investigation recommended dismissal over McCabe's alleged "lack of candor" about contacts he had with a Wall Street Journal reporter in 2016.

"[B]ased on the report of the Inspector General, the findings of the FBI Office of Professional Responsibility, and the recommendation of the Department's senior career official, I have terminated the employment of Andrew McCabe effective immediately," Sessions said.

"The FBI expects every employee to adhere to the highest standards of honesty, integrity, and accountability. As the OPR proposal stated, 'all FBI employees know that lacking candor under oath results in dismissal and that our integrity is our brand,' " he said.

In a statement issued immediately after his termination was announced, McCabe said the decision was politically motivated. "The big picture is a tale of what can happen when law enforcement is politicized, public servants are attacked, and people who are supposed to cherish and protect our institutions become instruments for damaging those institutions and people," McCabe said.

"Here is the reality," he added. "I am being singled out and treated this way because of the role I played, the actions I took, and the events I witnessed in the aftermath of the firing of James Comey. The release of this report was accelerated only after my testimony to the House Intelligence Committee revealed that I would corroborate former Director Comey's accounts of his discussions with the President. The OIG's focus on me and this report became a part of an unprecedented effort by the Administration, driven by the President himself, to remove me from my position, destroy my reputation, and possibly strip me of a pension that I worked 21 years to earn. The accelerated release of the report, and the punitive actions taken in response, make sense only when viewed through this lens."

McCabe announced his retirement from the bureau abruptly in January, and it was to take effect Sunday.

His dismissal, just days before he was set to retire, puts his full pension and benefits package in jeopardy and is an inglorious end to career of almost 22 years with the bureau.

A longtime target

Republicans have been attacking McCabe since the 2016 presidential campaign.

His wife, Jill, ran for a state legislative seat in Virginia as a Democrat and accepted campaign contributions via then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Clinton loyalist. The FBI and Justice Department's compliance offices found no problems with the situation, but Republicans called it a conflict of interest.

Even while he was on the campaign trail during the 2016 race and at times since taking office, Trump has complained about what he called McCabe's bias and called for Sessions to fire him.

By mid-December 2017, before McCabe was set to testify behind closed doors with the House intelligence committee, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., alluded to McCabe's rocky standing.

"I'll be a little bit surprised if he's still an employee of the FBI this time next week," said Gowdy, who is also a member of the House Judiciary Committee which has oversight responsibility for the bureau, in a Dec. 15 interview with Fox News.

McCabe served as the acting director of the FBI for three months in 2017, after Trump abruptly fired James Comey, and before the current director, Christopher Wray, was sworn in. McCabe made news in a congressional hearing in May by contradicting Trump.

The White House had said Trump fired Comey because he had lost the confidence of the FBI's rank-and-file agents and workers — but McCabe, when asked, said that was not so.

"Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI and still does to this day," McCabe told lawmakers soon after the president had ousted Comey.

Behind the scenes, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz was continuing to investigate Comey and McCabe and the bureau's handling of an investigation into the Clinton Foundation. The IG's office drafted a report that is believed to include the allegation that McCabe lacked candor with investigators about his contacts with a Wall Street Journal reporter. In addition, the statement from Sessions late Friday said the IG's office and the FBI's Office of Professional Responsibility also faulted McCabe for "an unauthorized disclosure to the news media."

Accordingly, the OPR recommended that McCabe lose his job.

People in McCabe's camp said earlier this week that he has an explanation for any inconsistencies in his account of the conversations with the journalist and that in each instance, he went back and corrected the record, often citing the chaos around him and the FBI at the time. He had followed up with investigators as part of the Justice Department process.

In his statement Friday, McCabe explained events this way:

"The investigation flows from my attempt to explain the FBI's involvement and my supervision of investigations involving Hillary Clinton. 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 clear that we were continuing an investigation that people in DOJ opposed."

McCabe added that his contacts with the reporter were "not a secret," known to others at the FBI at the time including then-Director Comey, typical of the exchanges with the media he regularly oversaw as deputy director and the kind of work he continued under Director Wray.

"The investigation subsequently focused on who I talked to, when I talked to them, and so forth," McCabe also said in his statement. "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 January, when Wray attempted to move McCabe into another job to limit the FBI's embarrassment when the IG report became public, McCabe abruptly announced his retirement. His plan was to use up accumulated leave he was due before his previously scheduled retirement date this month.

Trump and his supporters group McCabe with whom they call other bad actors inside the FBI, including two employees who exchanged text messages critical of Trump in 2016. That revelation also has embarrassed the FBI and fueled critics' accusations that people inside the bureau abused their power to target Trump out of personal animus.

A raw deal?

McCabe's supporters, led by Comey, have said before Friday's firing that McCabe has been badly mistreated. "Special Agent Andrew McCabe stood tall over the last 8 months, when small people were trying to tear down an institution we all depend on," the former FBI director wrote on Twitterin late January when McCabe announced his retirement. "He served with distinction for two decades. I wish Andy well."

The FBI and Justice Department and their allies in Congress deny the charges of "bias" and say there is no deep conspiracy aimed at Trump, nor any wrongdoing in use of surveillance authority by the FBI or DOJ, as Republicans charge.

McCabe said Friday night that the attacks on him are part of a "larger effort" to "taint the FBI, law enforcement, and intelligence professionals more generally. It is part of this Administration's ongoing war on the FBI and the efforts of the Special Counsel investigation [led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller], which continue to this day. Their persistence in this campaign only highlights the importance of the Special Counsel's work."

McCabe signaled that a long fight could be ahead over how Sessions chose to end his more than two decades of service to the FBI — and who and what motivated the decision to terminate him less than 48 hours before his planned retirement date.

"The President's tweets have amplified and exacerbated it all," McCabe said. "He called for my firing. He called for me to be stripped of my pension after more than 20 years of service. And all along [my family and I] have said nothing, never wanting to distract from the mission of the FBI by addressing the lies told and repeated about us.

"No more."

McCabe's lawyer said Friday night that attacks on McCabe "have come from the White House since last summer."

"And it was quite clearly designed to put inappropriate pressure on the Attorney General to act accordingly," attorney Michael Bromwich added. "This intervention by the White House in the DOJ disciplinary process is unprecedented, deeply unfair, and dangerous."

While Sessions said the internal investigation that led to McCabe's firing had been "extensive and fair" and had been undertaken "according to Department of Justice Procedure," Bromwich said the process had been rushed, limiting the time he and McCabe had to access, review and analyze the relevant evidence in order to prepare a response.

"With so much at stake, this process has fallen far short of what Mr. McCabe deserved," Bromwich said. "This concerted effort to accelerate the process in order to beat the ticking clock of his scheduled retirement violates any sense of decency and basic principles of fairness."

McCabe said having his career end in this way was "incredibly disappointing and unfair." But, he added, "it will not erase the important work I was privileged to be a part of, the results of which will in the end be revealed for the country to see.

"I have unfailing faith in the men and women of the FBI and I am confident that their efforts to seek justice will not be deterred."

That sentiment had a familiar ring, as it echoed comments McCabe made during his first appearance on Capitol Hill less than 48 hours after Comey's firing by Trump last year.

McCabe, then the acting FBI director, told members of Congress he was confident the bureau would continue to pursue the Justice Department's Russia investigation and do its other work amid the controversy.

"You cannot stop the men and women of the FBI from doing the right thing," he said, "protecting the American people and upholding the Constitution."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of Military.com, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.