Andrew McCabe, who is abruptly stepping down today as the FBI’s deputy director, has been the target of criticism by President Trump. But he was also involved in an incident with the White House early last year that raised questions about whether he and the bureau were trying to damage the president.
In an excerpt from my new book “Media Madness: Donald Trump, The Press and the War Over the Truth,” I describe events that unfolded last year, beginning with a conversation between McCabe and the then-White House chief of staff:
Reince Priebus was chairing a 7:30 a.m. intelligence meeting when one of the participants, Andrew McCabe, asked to speak to him privately.
McCabe, the deputy FBI director, closed the door and told Priebus: “We want you to know that everything in this New York Times story is bull–.”
The Times had quoted unnamed sources in reporting that Trump campaign aides and associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials. CNN had carried a similar report.
Priebus pointed to the three televisions on his office wall: “Here’s my problem, they’re going 24/7. Can the FBI say what you just told me?”
McCabe said he would have to check. Priebus thought he might come out of this a freaking hero.
A few hours later, McCabe told him the bureau couldn’t start the practice of commenting on newspaper stories or it would never end.
“Give me a break,” Priebus said. “I’m getting crushed all over the place, and you won’t say publicly what you told me privately?”
James Comey called later. “We really can’t do anything about it,” the FBI director told him. But Comey said he’d be willing to tell the Senate Intelligence Committee that the charges were bogus; he was sure its members would repeat that for the cameras.
Now, a week later, CNN was airing a breaking news story naming Priebus. According to “multiple U.S. officials,” the network said, “the FBI rejected a White House request to publicly knock down media reports about communications between Donald Trump’s associates and Russians known to U.S. intelligence.”
Priebus was stunned by the implication that he was pressuring law enforcement. Had he been set up? Why was the FBI leaking this information when one of its top officials had initiated the conversation?
Comey assured Priebus that afternoon that he hadn’t done anything wrong, but the story reverberated for days. “Is Reince Priebus Lying About the FBI?” Slate asked. “Reince Priebus Should Resign,” a Boston Globe columnist demanded. The damage was done.