Donald Trump has a gift for self-sabotage. His candor in an interview last year with NBC, after firing FBI director James Comey, is what got him the special counsel that haunts his presidency. His instructions to Donald Trump Jr. to lie about his meeting with a Russian lawyer during the election have placed his son and other senior White House staff in legal jeopardy.
The latest example of Trump getting in the way of his own good fortune is a tweet about former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe. On Friday night at 11:08 pm, the president gloated: “Andrew McCabe FIRED, a great day for the hard working men and women of the FBI.” So the firing certainly looks political, right?
Except it didn’t look that way until the tweet went out. When he fired McCabe earlier that day, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was following the recommendations of senior career Justice Department lawyers, after a report from the department’s inspector general, who was appointed by Barack Obama.
At issue is an allegation that McCabe lacked candor when he was asked about unauthorized disclosures during the 2016 election regarding pressure to drop elements of an investigation into Hillary Clinton.
McCabe is not going down without a fight. Friday night in a statement to the press, he said: “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.” That’s an extraordinary charge. McCabe had earlier testified before the House Intelligence Committee that he would support Comey’s account of how Trump urged Comey to refrain from going after former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
This convoluted backstory is one reason that the specific justification for terminating McCabe is immensely important.
Former FBI agent James Gagliano, who was McCabe’s boss early in his career and said he found him to be honest, told me McCabe was incorrect to allege a political taint to the inspector general’s investigation and the recommendation from the bureau’s own Office of Professional Responsibility to fire him.
“Lack of candor is an apex violation in the FBI,” Gagliano said. “It undercuts your ability to testify. So, whether a probationary agent or a senior executive with days to the finish line, sanction is — and should be — employment termination.”
There is still a lot we don’t know. So far the inspector general’s report on the FBI’s handling of the Clinton case — related to concerns about Clinton’s email security when she was secretary of state — has not been released. The public has also yet to see the Justice Department’s applications to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor the communications of former Trump campaign aide Carter Page, who was suspected of being a Russian intelligence asset but has yet to be charged with any crime. This says nothing of the case the special counsel, Robert Mueller, may or may not be building on the Trump campaign’s own collusion with Russian agents regarding emails stolen from leading Democrats and leaked.
However those investigations all turn out, Trump has assured himself of one additional problem in the meantime. That gloating tweet, and earlier ones from December when Trump urged Sessions to fire McCabe, give his opposition evidence of politicization of the FBI — exactly what Trump alleged had happened under his predecessor. If Trump had left the investigation to the professionals in his Justice Department he wouldn’t have this problem.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.