Annals of Bureaucratese, The Trump/McCabe File

Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, left, next to CIA Director Mike Pompeo, listens as Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats testifies at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, May 11, 2017. It is an annual hearing about the major threats facing the U.S., but former FBI Director Jim Comey's sudden firing is certain to be a focus of questions. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Jacquelyn Martin/AP

You may have seen Andrew McCabe’s 60 Minutes interview last night. We’ll be bringing you various nuggets from that interview and the rest of the press tour he’s doing today. But there are a number of points that come up his accounts that aren’t news in themselves but shed important light on the nature of how the federal government, perhaps all governments, work. After more than 20 years in this business and particularly after everything that occurred in the aftermath of 9/11 and Iraq War, I became very interested in how President’s – or rather than Presidency – bends the government to its will.

Let’s take the false claims that Saddam Hussein had vast stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, a key premise for the Iraq War. To rehearse the basic facts, it was commonly believed in the US intelligence world – wrongly – that Iraq had at least some chemical weapons programs. That wasn’t a big leap. They’d had them before. And even used them. But that wasn’t enough. The administration took the elastic term ‘WMD’, pushed every hint of possible biological or nuclear programs, lied, cajoled, exaggerated until we got the phony hysteria that helped grease the skids for war. We know this story.

What was even more shocking to me was that after the war, after the complete wrongness of these claims became known, the administration was more or less able to generate government reports that explained that the intelligence agencies had somehow let the White House down, given it bad information. Not only was the White House allowed to avoid blame. They were able to pin it on the people who’d largely been telling them no. There was some truth in this. The intelligence agencies did give the White House bad information, sort of like the bank teller does actually give the bank robber money. Well, not quite that much compulsion. But you get the idea.

Why does this all matter now?

I see it coming up at various points in the new revelations about Andrew McCabe. We don’t have an autocratic government where the leader can say the sky is green and everybody agrees and says the sky is green. When you push the bureaucracy you have to push it toward things it can actually do. Some things it can’t or won’t do. But the President, with all his or her power, can usually get something like what he or she wants if they push hard enough and find a path, even if indirect, to get it.

After the Iraq War, they produced reports about how the intelligence agencies were wrong about Iraq’s supposed chemical weapons program. They showed other errors about biological and nuclear weapons program. When the White House made clear that they wanted the maximal evidence and arguments for Iraqi nuclear and biological weapons, the intelligence agencies did their best to provide it. They just didn’t come up with much. But the White House used those whisps and slivers of evidence to maximal effect. The various administration and congressional reports told that story. They just chose not to describe Bush appointees role in pushing them to make those errors and exaggerations.

As Mel Brooks might say, it’s good to be the President. He got the better part of the transaction on both ends of the equation.

One of the great questions or mysteries of the last two years is Rod Rosenstein’s role writing the memo to justify the firing of James Comey. What makes this a mystery is the fact that Rosenstein also seems to be the key person sustaining the Russia probe itself. In other words, if Rosenstein were just a worthless hack there’d be no mystery. But he’s shown, as best we can tell, that he’s not. He appointed Bob Mueller. He appears to have resisted all efforts to shut the investigation down. In many ways he’s been the cog in the machinery preserving the rule of law in this country for two years.

As McCabe explains, Trump wanted Rosenstein to put Russia in the firing memo but Rosenstein didn’t.

Andrew McCabe: Rod was concerned by his interactions with the president, who seemed to be very focused on firing the director and saying things like, “Make sure you put Russia in your memo.” That concerned Rod in the same way that it concerned me and the FBI investigators on the Russia case.

If Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein listed the Russia investigation in his memo to the White House, it could look like he was obstructing the Russia probe by suggesting Comey’s firing. And by implication, it would give the president cover.

Scott Pelley: He didn’t wanna put Russia in his memo.

Andrew McCabe: He did not. He explained to the president that he did not need Russia in his memo. And the president responded, “I understand that, I am asking you to put Russia in the memo anyway.”

When the memo justifying Comey’s firing was made public, Russia was not in it. But, Mr. Trump made the connection anyway, telling NBC, then, Russian diplomats that the Russian investigation was among the reasons he fired Comey.

Rosenstein had just recently started his job as Deputy Attorney General. What is notable here is that Rosenstein had to know that Comey was being fired over Russia. He did know. He put his expertise and authority at the President’s disposal to do just that. But he wouldn’t say it was over Russia. He felt he could justify Comey’s dismissal for other reasons – a reasonable point in isolation.

So Trump couldn’t get exactly what he wanted – formal justification for firing Comey over the supposedly fake Russia probe. But he could get one of the country’s top government lawyers to provide him a justification to fire Comey, with that official knowing full well the reality of what was happening.

This brings us to another point about the McCabe story. McCabe was eventually fired from the FBI for allegedly lying to subordinates about his communications to the press about an investigation. He was fired, possibly loses his pension and faces the real threat of criminal prosecution. These findings come from an Inspector General’s report produced by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz.

Horowitz was actually appointed by President Obama. I don’t know his precise politics. But he’s not a Trump appointee. The IG report provided President Trump a good justification for what he clearly wanted to do: fire and discredit and punish McCabe.

What luck for Trump!

Horowitz also all but ignored what was originally one of the IG Report’s main briefs: to discover whether bias at the FBI or fear or leaks was behind James Comey’s decision to send that letter to Congress in the final days of the campaign, a decision which likely turned the election. That simply isn’t discussed in the report. He focused much more on the possibility that bias on the part of Peter Strzok and others conceivably could have affected the FBI’s decision-making or might have appeared to affect it.

Did Horowitz, who at least on the surface appears to be a fairly straight-laced career government lawyer type, really so easily do Trump’s dirty work. The simple answer I think is: Yes!

But again, the bureaucracy tends to bend to the President’s will. It does so usually even without directly being told to do so. For all I know, McCabe did lie to his FBI colleagues in the way described. But I’m pretty sure these were falsehoods that either never would have been probed or would have been overlooked had he not been the President’s public enemy number one. Horowitz didn’t produce a report that said “no collusion!” or “fake news!” or “deep state!”. More seriously, he did not produce a report that validated the various conspiracy theories being peddled by folks like Rep. Devin Nunes on behalf of the White House. But he did produce one that facilitated the firing of the President’s enemies and avoided as much as possible even touching the questions the White House did not want asked.

This isn’t just Horowitz. Over time you see that this is the way the federal bureaucracy works again and again, especially in the national security and intelligence realms. By and large, career professionals or high level, relatively apolitical appointees won’t lie or break the law for the President. But they will generally find ways to get the President what he or she wants, or as much of it as possible, even when they know it’s wrong and perhaps even do not want to do it at all.

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