The Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General has concluded that former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe misled internal investigators over his role in authorizing a leak of information to the Wall Street Journal. Although the report delivers a harsh assessment of McCabe, a longtime target of President Trump, it also undermines the narrative of McCabe as an anti-Trump partisan who sought to harm the president’s 2016 campaign.
The IG released its findings on Friday, about a month after McCabe was fired for “lack of candor” by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was under significant public pressure from Trump. The report frames McCabe’s conduct in authorizing the October 2016 leak—which was in connection to an investigation into the Clinton Foundation—as self-serving.
“McCabe’s disclosure was an attempt to make himself look good by making senior department leadership … look bad,” the report reads. The disclosure “may have served McCabe’s personal interests” because it rebutted public allegations, reported in the Journal days before, that he tried to slow-walk the investigation. But “it did so at the expense of undermining public confidence in the Department as a whole,” the IG said.
For months before he was fired—just days before he was scheduled to retire—McCabe was a frequent target of the president. Trump has sought to portray the ongoing special-counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election as a “witch hunt” against him and his associates, and he’s repeatedly accused the FBI of bias—including McCabe and especially James Comey, the former bureau director whom Trump fired last May.
The president publicly berated McCabe on Twitter—and he reportedly did the same in private, too. In one interaction, he allegedly asked McCabe how it felt that his wife was a “loser,” a reference to her unsuccessful campaign for state office in Virginia as a Democrat. After the report was released Friday afternoon, Trump linked his two FBI targets in a tweet:
DOJ just issued the McCabe report – which is a total disaster. He LIED! LIED! LIED! McCabe was totally controlled by Comey – McCabe is Comey!! No collusion, all made up by this den of thieves and lowlifes!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 13, 2018
McCabe’s attorney, Michael Bromwich, also released a statement following the report, arguing that the internal-review process that ended in McCabe’s firing was politicized. The president’s “comments have applied inappropriate pressure on [the IG] and DOJ more generally,” Bromwich’s statement reads. “No one, not even an independent Inspector General, is fully immune from the type of political pressure that has been applied in Mr. McCabe’s case.” Additionally, Bromwich announced McCabe’s intention to sue Trump and “other senior members of the administration” for “wrongful termination, defamation, Constitutional violations and more.”
The IG report concludes that McCabe lied under oath, a grave charge for a federal agent. But it doesn’t support Trump’s claims of bias. McCabe isn’t cast as a liberal partisan, nor is he shown as being particularly bound to Comey. Counter to Trump’s suggestion that McCabe was under Comey’s control, the report states that McCabe misled Comey about his role in the leak. (McCabe’s lawyers contend that he did not mislead investigators, and that the pre-firing review process was deliberately truncated because of political pressure from the president.)
The disclosure at the heart of the IG report appeared in an October 30, 2016 story in the Journal. The report states that, with the leak, McCabe was attempting to counter an emerging narrative on the right that he was responsible for the FBI delaying investigations into Clinton because of his wife’s ties to the Democratic Party. McCabe authorized the disclosure of a conversation he had with another Justice Department official to reporters. In that conversation, McCabe reportedly accused the official of telling him to “shut down a validly predicated investigation.” The report states that the official had “expressed concerns about FBI agents taking overt steps in the [Clinton Foundation] Investigation during the presidential campaign.”
That disclosure was self-serving, the IG said, and wasn’t in the interest of the FBI or the public. But the leak itself is less of an issue in the IG report than McCabe’s alleged attempts to conceal his role in it. The report states that shortly after the disclosure, at an October 31 staff meeting, McCabe gave Comey the impression that he played no role in the Journal story. Subsequently, the report states, McCabe misled internal investigators over a period of months about his involvement—including during interviews conducted under oath. In Bromwich’s telling, McCabe disclosed the information to protect the FBI “against false claims” of political bias, and the lack-of-candor charge was “more properly understood as the result of misunderstanding, miscommunication, and honest failures of recollection based on the swirl of events around him, statements which he subsequently corrected.”
According to the report, McCabe’s disclosure also “effectively confirmed the existence” of the Clinton Foundation probe, which Comey “had previously refused to do.” That kind of disclosure—affirming the existence of an FBI probe against a political candidate close to an election—is against longstanding Justice Department rules.
If those rules sound familiar, it’s because Comey, more famously, violated them. Just two days before the publication of the Journal story, and less than two weeks before the 2016 election, he revealed to Congress that the FBI had reopened its investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email system.
That fact highlights an additional irony. McCabe and Comey are both targets of Trump’s wrath, and are key figures in the alleged deep-state conspiracy against the White House. But they were both fired, ostensibly, because of their roles in disclosing information related to Clinton, not Trump. While the president ultimately admitted that he fired Comey because of the “Russia thing,” the White House initially argued it was because of his public handling of the Clinton email matter, which was separate from the foundation investigation.
Another similarity? In both cases, there were credible accusations of misconduct that critics allege were used as pretext for political retribution. The possibility that McCabe and Comey were punished for displeasing the president, rather than any abuse of authority, sends an alarming message: that under the Trump administration, the latter may be excused, but the former is unforgivable.