The Hidden Bombshell in the McCabe Report

The Hidden Bombshell in the McCabe Report
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
The Hidden Bombshell in the McCabe Report
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
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The news reports have all focused on the FBI’s second-in-command leaking information to the Wall Street Journal – or authorizing subordinates to do so -- and then lying to investigators about it. This is big news, provided that account is borne out by a subsequent criminal indictment and successful prosecution.

The news will be even bigger if Andrew McCabe pursues a scorched-earth policy against his FBI superior, James Comey, who started the investigation of his deputy. Even a prosecutor fresh out of law school ought to be able to flip McCabe, who is facing serious jail time and thinks he has been betrayed. Such men are dangerous.

McCabe’s testimony is the best way to learn why the FBI and Department of Justice seemingly mishandled everything related to Hillary Clinton and how the intelligence agencies routinely funneled classified material on Donald Trump to friendly news agencies. If there was a high-level conspiracy to obstruct justice in the Clinton investigation or to use the so-called “Deep State” to smear Trump, McCabe would know a lot about it.

He could also respond to the stunning allegation recently leveled by Rep. Devin Nunes, the California Republican who chairs the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. On Sunday, Nunes told Fox News anchorwoman Maria Bartiromo, “We now know that there was no official intelligence that was used to start this investigation” of Trump’s aides. Nunes has read the classified materials, and he is making a deeply troubling allegation: An official investigation was mounted against an American presidential campaign with no official information to support it. If so, then U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement agencies were weaponized for partisan purposes. McCabe would know about that, too, or know if it is untrue.

So would Peter Strzok, number two in the FBI’s counterintelligence section, and his paramour, Lisa Page. They may be talking to investigators already. That would be the most plausible explanation for why they haven’t been fired. As long as they are still on the government payroll, they are available to Inspector General Michael Horowitz and his team of investigators. There are also credible reports that Strzok’s boss, Bill Priestap, is now a cooperating witness. His name is rarely heard in public, but he would have a goldmine of information.

Although the public focus has been on McCabe’s reported deceptions, one of his presumably truthful comments about the Department of Justice may be even more significant. He said flatly that during the last months of the Obama administration, high-ranking Justice Department officials tried to kill the FBI’s on-going investigation into the Clinton Foundation. It happened in a phone call from DOJ’s third-highest official. Although unidentified in the report, the reference apparently is to Matthew Axelrod, whose title at the time was principal associate deputy attorney general.

Here’s what the inspector general report says:

McCabe told the OIG that on August 12, 2016, he received a telephone call from Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General regarding the FBI’s handling of the Clinton Foundation. McCabe said that the PADAG expressed concerns about FBI agents taking overt steps in the Clinton Foundation investigation during the presidential campaign. According to McCabe, he pushed back, asking “are you telling me that I need to shut down a validly predicated investigation?” McCabe told us that the conversation was “very dramatic” and he never had a similar confrontation like [that] call with a high-level Department official in his entire FBI career.

The 35-page report goes on to say that, by leaking that conversation, McCabe was trying “to make himself look good by making senior department leadership, specifically the Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General, look bad,” Well, yeah.

The same logic should apply to the misappropriated, classified memos James Comey leaked through his friend at Columbia Law School. Comey has said they were meant to force the appointment of a special counsel.

Those leaks do make senior law-enforcement leaders look bad. Actually, they make them look politically corrupt. The Horowitz report does not dispute that the DOJ call to McCabe took place or that it was meant to quash a legitimate FBI investigation of the Clinton Foundation. If that is confirmed, it is a perversion of the Justice Department and its core function of unbiased application of the law.

We need to know if McCabe is telling the truth about direct political pressure to help the Clintons. If he is, we need to know who told the DOJ official to make that call. That explanation needs to be under oath before a grand jury, since it smells a lot like obstruction of justice and may involve his bosses. All of them are high-level political appointees.

According to a Wall Street Journal article, McCabe says he stood straight and tall and “reiterated past instructions to FBI agents that they were to keep pursuing the work within the authority they had.” But that’s based on McCabe’s self-serving leak. The FBI agents under his command say he was more like a supine munchkin, carrying out the wishes of Loretta Lynch’s people. FBI agents investigating the Clinton Foundation “were given a much starker instruction on the case: ‘Stand down,’” according to the Journal report. “When agents questioned why they weren’t allowed to take more aggressive steps, they said they were told the order had come from the deputy director -- Mr. McCabe.” Again, that looks like possible obstruction of justice, done for explicitly partisan-political reasons.

Somebody’s lying here, and maybe more than one person. All these players are, or were, high-ranking officials at the FBI and DOJ. All of them ought to explain themselves before a grand jury. Since those proceedings are secret and indictments take time, we need public reports, and soon, from Horowitz’s office about these allegations. Was there a political attempt by the Department of Justice to protect the Clinton Foundation from an FBI investigation? Was Loretta Lynch herself involved? Was the White House or were the Clintons? Or did McCabe do all this on his own to protect the Clintons?

The OIG report does not dispute the statement, made in the Journal article, that the DOJ official “was ‘very pissed off,’ according to one person close to Mr. McCabe, and pressed him to explain why the FBI was still chasing a matter the Department [of Justice] considered dormant.” As you may have guessed, that “person close to Mr. McCabe” stared at him every morning when he shaved.

Unfortunately, it looks as though a lot of top officials at the FBI and DOJ were shaving the law, violating our basic constitutional promise that the rules must be applied fairly to everyone. That must include the powerful. Equal treatment must include the men and women who lead the agencies we entrust to collect sensitive information, keep it secret, and enforce the law. They are not exempt, like the king’s courtiers or the dictator’s oligarchs. There is spreading evidence that, in the final year of the Obama administration, our country’s top law-enforcement and intelligence officials failed in that most basic responsibility. We need to know if they did, and we need to know who put them up to it.

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he is founding director of PIPES, the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at

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