If the firing of former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe on Friday night felt like something you’d see in a third-world dictatorship, you aren’t alone.
It reminded many of authoritarian leaders in other nations who purge those from the government who have not shown absolute loyalty or who have dared to publicly contradict them.
In a vacuum, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ firing of McCabe approximately 26 hours before he would be eligible for early retirement benefits could turn out to be above reproach. The Justice Department Inspector General’s Michael Horowitz, nominated to this position in 2011 by then President Barack Obama, had reportedly concluded that McCabe had “misled investigators about his role in directing other officials at the FBI” to speak to the media in connection with an ongoing investigation. However, the Inspector General’s report has not yet been publicly released, and McCabe vehemently denies the charges.
And, more importantly, we don’t live in a vacuum. We live in the real world where context matters. And what we saw was Donald Trump lead a very public campaign to smear, undermine and ultimately replace McCabe, who was acting as FBI director after Trump fired James Comey, with current FBI director Christopher Wray.
Was Trump out to get McCabe because McCabe dared to publicly contradict Trump when he testified before Congress in May?
Just consider this: there was McCabe, only two days after Trump fired Comey, undermining Trump’s claim that Comey had lost the confidence of the rank and file FBI agents. And then McCabe undercut the White House’s assertion that the FBI regarded the investigation into the Russian election as a low priority, with McCabe saying instead it was “highly significant.”
Could it be that Trump wanted McCabe out because, as McCabe put it to The New York Times, his firing “was part of an effort to discredit me as a witness” in the ongoing investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller? After all, McCabe is in a unique position to corroborate Comey’s claim that Trump had demanded his loyalty when he was FBI director and that Trump had asked Comey to drop his investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who has since pled guilty to lying to the FBI.
We cannot know for sure. But what we do know is that from July through late December 2017, Trump sent out at least six tweets slamming McCabe. Last July, Trump even urged Sessions to fire McCabe, which was eight months before the Inspector General’s recent report was released.
Add to that, Trump’s tweet two days before Christmas, where he ominously raised the issue of McCabe’s pension benefits: “FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe is racing the clock to retire with full benefits. 90 days to go?!!!” Trump was apparently so obsessed with McCabe that he actually knew the number of days until McCabe’s retirement benefits vested.
In other words, Trump alluded to the possibility that McCabe could be fired before he would be eligible for early retirement benefits, and Sessions did just that. Which begs the questions: did Sessions really terminate McCabe because it was merited, or because Sessions felt that if he didn’t dump McCabe, he could be the next to go from the Trump regime? That context matters as well.
Not only has Trump publicly belittled Sessions on Twitter numerous times, but just last week Trump fired his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, via Twitter and warned that even more changes were coming.
In any event, within hours of Session’s firing McCabe, Trump took to Twitter to celebrate with a tweet that read in part: “Andrew McCabe FIRED, a great day for the hard-working men and women of the FBI – A great day for Democracy.”
A great day for democracy?! Not even close. That tweet was more akin to a dictator warning others that if they dare contradict him or not show him the loyalty he demands, they will meet a similar fate.
And that’s likely the message Trump wants to send. As Trump told an audience in 2012, you have to hit back at your rivals “five times harder” than they hit you so that “other people watch and you know they say, ‘Well, let’s leave Trump alone.'”
That is less the mindset of the President of the United States and more akin to the strongmen leaders who Trump admires, such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Egypt’s Abdel El-Sisi, who punish those who dare to challenge their authority.
But anyone who truly cares about the trajectory of the nation must be concerned that if Sessions’ decision to fire McCabe was in any way motivated by Trump’s disdain toward him, we may start to resemble the very regimes we claim to stand against.