Mouths Shut

Trump Imposes His Will, and His New FBI Director Gets in Line

The president kept up the pressure, which ultimately seems to have been less a matter of politics than a personal test.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe had made it known that he was going to retire in March, anyway.

That was not good enough for our president.

Trump wanted him gone.

For a brief time, the new FBI director, Christopher Wray, seemed to prove that you can be a tough guy even if you attended Andover and Yale and married into a socially prominent family.

There were even reports that Wray had threatened to quit rather than fire McCabe before he became eligible for his pension.

Then came reports that White House counsel Donald McGahn had threatened to quit rather than going along with Trump firing special counsel Robert Mueller.

As a reality TV star, Trump had been famous for announcing “You’re fired!”

As president, he had done the same with FBI Director James Comey.

But in recent days, it has suddenly seemed like Trump couldn’t fire anybody without somebody else threatening to quit if he did.

“I will not be swayed by political or other pressure in my decision-making,” Wray reportedly declared in an internal FBI missive.

Sure.

Trump kept up the pressure, which ultimately seems to have been less a matter of politics than a personal test.

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Back when he decided to get rid of Comey, Trump had the former New York City subway cop who served as his long-term bodyguard hand-deliver a note to FBI headquarters.

Word of Comey’s dismissal had reached him after he had flown out to Los Angeles for an FBI event. Trump saw TV footage of Comey boarding the FBI plane for the trip home.  

What?

That was not how it went on The Apprentice.

Fired was supposed to be fired.

By one news account, Trump called McCabe the next day. McCabe had become the acting director by default, and Trump is said to have demanded to know why he had allowed Comey to fly back on the FBI plane.

McCabe is said to have told Trump that nobody had asked him to approve the flight. Had McCabe left it there, he might have seemed enough of a weasel for the president not to feel challenged.

But McCabe is said to have also told Trump that he would have approved the flight if he had been asked. McCabe was thereby standing up to Trump.  

That was really not how it went on The Apprentice.

That report says, and the White House has since denied, that Trump then asked McCabe to ask his wife how it felt to be “a loser.” That would have been a reference to Dr. Jill McCabe’s 2015 campaign for the Virginia state Senate. She lost despite receiving almost $500,000 from a PAC run by then Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who is close to the Clintons. The sum was in addition to the more than $200,000 she’d received from the state Democratic Party.

The state Senate race had long been over when Andrew McCabe supervised the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails and Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Trump insisted something untoward was at work. He double tweeted on July 26.

“Why didn’t A.G. Sessions replace Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, a Comey friend who was in charge of Clinton investigation but got....”

and

“...big dollars ($700,000) for his wife’s political run from Hillary Clinton and her representatives. Drain the Swamp!”

In the meantime, Trump had summoned McCabe to the Oval Office. He is said to have asked McCabe at one point who he voted for in the presidential election. McCabe replied that he had not voted.

A Virginia election official subsequently confirmed that McCabe had been telling the truth about the general election. McCabe had voted in the Republican primary, which belied Trump’s continued insistence that McCabe is a Democrat and that a scheme was afoot. He tweeted about McCabe again on Dec. 23:

“How can FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, the man in charge, along with leakin’ James Comey, of the Phony Hillary Clinton investigation (including her 33,000 illegally deleted emails) be given $700,000 for wife’s campaign by Clinton Puppets during investigation?”

And again an hour later that same day:

FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe is racing the clock to retire with full benefits. 90 days to go?!!!”

Trump might have just let the clock run out, but the tweet seems to have been a wish for McCabe to get pushed out before he got his pension. Trump found further pretext for his rage in the texts between FBI lawyer Lisa Page and her FBI senior analyst lover Peter Strzok.

“Want to believe the path you threw out for consideration in Andy’s office—that there’s no way he gets elected—but I’m afraid we can’t take that risk. It’s like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you’re 40,” Page texted before the election.

Andy perhaps being Andrew McCabe.

And then there was Page's text after Strzok bought a 2018 calendar featuring beefcake photos of Vladimir Putin, no doubt as a joke.

“Are you even going to give out your calendars? Seems kind of depressing,” Page wrote. “Maybe it should just be the first meeting of the secret society.”

Those who took the text seriously included Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-TX).

“We learned today about information that in the immediate aftermath of [Trump’s] election, that there may have been a secret society of folks within the Department of Justice and the FBI—to include Page and Strzok—that would be working against him,” Ratcliffe said.

At the suggestion there might be a left leaning, pro-Clinton secret society in the FBI, a retired agent who spent 34 years with the bureau suggested a venue where all possible members could meet.

“A phone booth,” he said.

He added, “There weren’t a lot of Democrats. If there were, they kept their mouth shut.”

The tale took another twist when thousands of text messages went missing. Trump summoned Wray to the White House to explain what would prove to have been a technical glitch.

“Where are the 50,000 important text messages between FBI lovers Lisa Page and Peter Strzok? Blaming Samsung!” Trump tweeted the next day.

He invoked Watergate when he spoke to reporters, suggesting the texts had been deliberately erased the way Nixon’s secretary “mistakenly” erased 18 minutes of an incriminating tape.

“Well, we’re going to see, I mean, I am very disturbed… as is everybody else that is intelligent. When you look at five months, this is the late great Rose Mary Woods, right?” he said. “This is a large-scale version.”

In the meantime, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, let it be known that he had written a secret memo that reportedly accuses the FBI of using questionable information to secure a surveillance warrant against a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign.

The Justice Department made it known in a letter to the committee that it would be “extraordinarily reckless” to release the memo before intelligence officials saw fit to determine whether it contained any information that could compromise national security.

The letter is said to have incensed Trump on his flight to Davos. Trump has cheered Republicans’ efforts to release the memo, which the Republican majority of the House Intelligence Committee voted to do on party lines Monday. In what seems to be a strategy worthy of his mentor, Roy Cohn, he has portrayed the investigation into Russian meddling as a politically motivated effort to smear him by the same people who had cleared Hillary Clinton.

Even so, just the suggestion of somebody monkeying around with a FISA application did alarm upstanding agents.

“It’s a big deal,” a retired supervisor said on Monday night.

The retired supervisor lamented that the craziness had also embroiled Andrew Weissmann, now one of Mueller’s top assistants but still widely respected for having led the prosecutions in the murderous “Colombo Wars” between two factions of that Mafia family in the 1990s. Weissmann more recently sent acting Attorney General Sally Yates an email applauding her decision not to enforce the Trump travel ban.  

“I am so proud,” Weissman wrote. “And in awe. Thank you so much. All my deepest respects.”

Weissman remains part of Mueller’s team, which seems to be working toward the conclusion of at least a major phase of its investigation. Trump faced the imminent likelihood of being questioned by Mueller.

That really, really, really was not how it went on The Apprentice.

And Andrew McCabe was still hanging on.

His final few weeks on the job could not have mattered in themselves.

As it happened, McCabe could still get his pension without them, thanks to accrued vacation and something called terminal leave.

What did matter was that the FBI had not bowed to Trump’s will.

Wray had not bowed to pressure.

Until he did.

On Monday, Wray reportedly voiced concern to McCabe about an upcoming inspector general’s report. Wray is said to have indicated that he would be moving McCabe to another, lesser position. McCabe surprised nobody by deciding to depart.

He was as good as fired.

Just like on The Apprentice.

But none of the firings on the show placed our democracy at risk.

The firing of Comey and now the effective firing of McCabe meant that Trump had removed the two top officials at the FBI while the bureau was conducting an investigation into his campaign.

Stay tuned for whatever happens next.

It is sure to be huge.