A Firing of Spite

You may claim that New Yorkers may be liberal elitists who are out of touch with the rest of America. While most people in New York City view Donald Trump with open contempt, many in the rest of the US have absolutely no idea why. But despite their liberal leanings, their loathing for their fellow New Yorker in the White House has nothing to do with his politics, his supporters, or how they view the rest of the country. Even before he got into politics, New Yorkers hated him. Because Trump has lived in New York City his whole life and have way more experience with his cries than anyone else in the world. They know he’s a first-rate huckster who’s swindled workers, customers, contractors, and investors alike to enrich himself. He may be shrewd and cunning but with no morals, ethics, or any sense of responsibility for his egregious actions. They don’t see Trump as a great businessman he styles himself to be in his narcissistic delusion of grandeur. But rather a fraud whose life as a celebrity and real estate behemoth wouldn’t be possible without his privileged background and inherited wealth from his father. He doesn’t think the rules should apply to him or that he should suffer any consequences for anything he does. He constantly lies and harshly retaliates those who dare criticize or challenge him. And he’d lash out at anyone who’d say anything negative about him even in jest. But what I find most disturbing about Donald Trump is his propensity for spite.

On Friday, March 16, 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe 2 days before his formal retirement which could cost him a federal pension. According to him, Justice Department Michael Horowitz found that in 2016, McCabe inappropriately allowed 2 top officials to speak to Wall Street Journal reporters on as story about FBI infighting over how to handle investigations into Hillary Clinton, particularly her email use as secretary of state and the Clinton Foundation. Specifically, McCabe authorized officials to push back against allegations that he had slowed down an investigation into the Clinton Foundation. According to the New York Times, the article states that the former deputy FBI director insisted his agents had the authority to investigate the foundation even if the Justice Department wouldn’t authorize grand jury subpoenas. Apparently, the inspector general’s report allegedly determines that McCabe lacked candor with internal investigators when asked about disclosures to the Wall Street Journal. That incident was under investigation as part of a broader look on how the FBI and Justice Department handled themselves during the 2016 presidential election. But McCabe lied about his authorization during an interview with the months-long probe, though he admits it as an honest mistake. That led to the FBI to recommend firing McCabe, which Sessions apparently accepted.

But the former deputy FBI director disputes this, writing in his searing statement: “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. In fact, it was the same type of work that I continued to do under Director Wray, at his request. The investigation subsequently focused on who I talked to, when I talked to them, and so forth. 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.”
Andrew McCabe had resigned from his post as deputy FBI director after Donald Trump and other top administration officials publicly attacked him for months. He’s also stepped away from his responsibilities, hoping to wait to leave until his retirement date. If Trump wanted him gone, he didn’t need to fire him. He already accomplished that. Though there are real questions about McCabe’s performance at the FBI, there are deeper questions about Trump’s public vendetta against him, and the role Sessions played in his termination. He may not be innocent in wrongdoing. He made a questionable call about allowing a leak to the press during the 2016 campaign and apparently lying about it. But none of this was why Trump wanted him gone. Since it’s difficult to believe that the full weight of the presidency was focused on firing McCabe for improperly authorizing FBI officials to speak to the Wall Street Journal or even hiding it later.

Donald Trump wanted Andrew McCabe gone because of his role overseeing the Russia probe as well as his ties to James Comey, whom he loathes. He hasn’t hid the fact as he tweeted on St. Patrick’s Day, “Andrew McCabe FIRED, a great day for the hard working men and women of the FBI – A great day for Democracy. Sanctimonious James Comey was his boss and made McCabe look like a choirboy. He knew all about the lies and corruption going on at the highest levels of the FBI!” Trump thinks the former deputy FBI director is a James Comey-aligned Democrat who was biased against them (he’s not). And he believes his political appointees should protect him. Trump has carried out his vendetta with McCabe for months in public and in harshly personal terms. Nor did he pressure Jeff Sessions behind the scenes since the whole country witnessed his campaign. By 2018, his campaign had already worked since the then-deputy FBI director announced plans to retire. Therefore, the Trump administration fired McCabe not to remove him from government, but to deny him the pension he earned for 20+ years of government service. It was an act of punishment and spite, not personnel management.

Donald Trump’s fury over Andrew McCabe goes back to a long-running controversy over the latter’s wife’s allegedly compromising ties to Hillary Clinton. In 2015, McCabe’s wife ran for a state Senate seat in Virginia, with backing from the state Democratic Party and Clinton ally former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe. Trump and other Republicans have used the donations and Justice Department probe against McCabe to argue he was secretly harboring an anti-Trump agenda. Trump also made it personal by asking McCabe what it’s like to have a “loser” wife. The former deputy FBI director’s name also surfaced in a text message sent by FBI agent Peter Strzok, who was removed from Robert Mueller’s Russia probe over his anti-Trump bias. But Strzok mentioned someone named “Andy” in a text message with federal attorney Lisa Page suggesting there was a negative discussion about Trump in McCabe’s office. Conservative media jumped on this, implying that the deputy FBI director was part of a grand anti-Trump conspiracy. When Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in May 2017, McCabe became acting FBI director. Suddenly, a man Trump believed worked against him was leading the probe into his campaign’s connections to Russia.

Jeff Sessions’s explanation for the firing boils down to the “Integrity is our brand” mantra. But this comes from an attorney general who’s seemingly crossing ethical lines himself in making this decision. Sessions has recused himself in no uncertain terms from any questions related to the investigations into the Clinton campaign or Russia involvement during the 2016 election. But on March 16, Sessions fired Andrew McCabe for activities undeniably related to the Clinton investigation. Sure, he fired McCabe after public pressure from Donald Trump. But Trump is clearly angry at McCabe for activities related to the Russia investigation, which Sessions is also recused from. The attorney general has his personal and professional reasons to get rid of McCabe. His recusal pissed Trump off since it left him exposed to Mueller inquiries. In fact, Trump has publicly mocked Sessions for months in what is now a pressure campaign to get the attorney general to resign. Firing McCabe doesn’t just conflict with his recusal promise but it’s exactly what his boss wants from him. The former deputy FBI director’s firing is Sessions’s olive branch to a man who might fire him, coming at a time when Trump’s looking for administration appointees to can. Whatever damage McCabe has done to the FBI’s reputation is nothing compared what Sessions’s did to the Justice Department’s integrity.

This isn’t the first time Jeff Sessions has been accused of violating his recusal pledge. A watchdog group filed a complaint with the Justice Department in May that his participation in FBI Director James Comey’s firing was a violation of his pledge to recuse himself from matters involving Russia. They asked the department investigate the ordeal, issue a public report, and take additional action if deemed appropriate.

The Trump administration’s firing of Andrew McCabe is part of the cost of Donald Trump’s daily venality. As with Jim Comey’s firing last year, even when his administration makes a decision that might be justifiable on its own terms, the process by which that decision was made can’t be trusted and may be scandalous on its own. McCabe acted improperly enough that justifying his termination is possible. But Trump and Sessions acted so appallingly that it’s hard to trust the process leading to McCabe’s termination. Or to believe this was anything but an effort to punish and humiliate a perceived political enemy and to send a message to other who might investigate Trump that they do so at their peril. This is the problem when the White House is occupied by a vengeful man with nothing but contempt for institutional independence, rule of law, or government transparency. You can’t trust Trump to fairly and impartially carry out decisions like this one. So the decisions themselves can’t be trusted. In the broader sense, Trump’s behavior here looks and feels uncomfortably like the kind of purge authoritarian leaders use to clear the field of potential rivals, critics, and whistleblowers. He doesn’t need to frog-march adversaries off to their deaths to abuse his executive power, intimidate would-be informers, drive honest civil servants out of government, and silence anyone who might challenge him. He destroys his critics’ livelihoods and careers. He turns dissidents into enemies of the people. He uses his media access and public trust to smear them. The threat of his rule disappears with them, because few in government will want to challenge such ruthless power after seeing the consequences. In the words of Freedom House, Trump has, “deviated from established norms of ethics and transparency, verbally attacked crucial democratic institutions such as the news media and the judiciary, and made inflammatory and often inaccurate statements on a wide range of issues.”

In response to his dismissal, Andrew McCabe released a fiery statement, “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. This attack on my credibility is one part of a larger effort not just to slander me personally, but 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, which continue to this day. Their persistence in this campaign only highlights the importance of the Special Counsel’s work.”

Like his former boss, McCabe kept memos including details on his interactions with Donald Trump, Comey, and other topics. And according to the Wall Street Journal, he gave the memos to special counsel Robert Mueller. It’s not clear that McCabe was worried about Trump lying to him like his boss. But his memos might be able to support Comey’s claim that Trump pressured him to end the FBI’s probe into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. If he does that, it makes Mueller’s obstruction of justice case much stronger as well as give him even more insight into how Trump dealt with FBI leadership and if at any point he attempted to end the probe. Given that he issued a fiery statement, gave memos to Mueller, and lawyered up, the battle over his ouster is far from over.

Soon after the news of the McCabe memos broke, Donald Trump tweeted, “As the House Intelligence Committee has concluded, there was no collusion between Russia and the Trump Campaign. As many now are finding out, however, there was tremendous leaking, lying, and corruption at the highest levels of the FBI, Justice, & State. #Drain the Swamp.” Minutes later, her fired of another tweet about McCabe, “The Fake News is beside themselves that McCabe was caught, called out and fired. How many hundreds of thousands of dollars was given to wife’s campaign by Crooked H friend, Terry M, who was also under investigation? How many lies? How many leaks? Comey knew it all, and much more!” This is basically an unfounded conspiracy theory that’s become increasingly hard to track. He later added, “The Mueller probe should never have been started in that there was no collusion and there was no crime. It was based on fraudulent activities and a Fake Dossier paid for by Crooked Hillary and the DNC, and improperly used in FISA COURT for surveillance of my campaign. WITCH HUNT!” These are a slew of previously debunked allegations and misleading claims. He also accused Comey of lying under oath, questioned the existence and validity of McCabe’s memos, and criticized Mueller by name for allegedly filling the ranks of his team of prosecutors and investigators with Democrats. But while Trump and other Republicans complain about Mueller’s team’s political interests, it’s illegal to consider political affiliations when choosing who to hire, according to the FBI. As McCabe wrote in his statement, “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.”

Nevertheless, Donald Trump’s firing of Andrew McCabe shows that his war with US law enforcement has entered a new phase and that he and his cronies feel more emboldened to attack Robert Mueller and others directly working on the Trump-Russia probe. In addition, it raises new fears that Trump would take the extreme step of firing Mueller, which both Democrats and Republicans claim would spark a constitutional crisis. Savannah Law School professor Andy Wright told Vox, “This is an escalation because it’s open warfare against the special counsel by name, and it’s capping off a 10-month effort to thwart the FBI and Mueller. I don’t know what happens next because we’re in uncharted territory.” On Saint Patrick’s Day, Trump’s lead personal lawyer John Dowd told reporters that Mueller’s probe should end, pointing to McCabe’s firing as a sign the whole investigation is tainted. Though he’s the same guy who told Axios in December that Trump “cannot obstruct justice because he is the chief executive law enforcement officer.” As if he hadn’t heard of Richard Nixon. And how presidents aren’t above the law as well as can be guilty of obstruction of justice. Still, the fallout from McCabe’s firing is deeply unsettling as Vox’s Ezra Klein argued, “McCabe’s firing shows how Trump has corroded the operations of the American government.” It may get worse in the coming days, especially if Trump warms up to try removing Mueller. But if he does, I hope as former CIA Director John Brennan tweeted, “When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history.”

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