WASHINGTON — Former Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe reiterated Tuesday that the bureau had reason to believe in early 2017 that President Donald Trump himself was a threat to national security, forcefully defending the bureau’s investigation of the commander in chief and his presidential campaign as Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee sought to highlight mistakes he and others made.
Speaking slowly and often drawing interruptions from the committee’s chairperson, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., McCabe, as he has in the past, insisted the bureau had good cause to open an investigation into whether Trump’s campaign conspired with Russia in the 2016 campaign, and later, into whether the president himself was a counterintelligence threat and had sought to obstruct that inquiry. He noted Trump had fired James Comey as the bureau’s director in May 2017 after Comey would not close an investigation into Trump’s then-national security adviser or say publicly that Trump himself was not under investigation.
“It became pretty clear to us that he did not want us to continue investigating what the Russians had done,” McCabe said, adding later, “We had many reasons at that point to believe that the president might himself pose a danger to national security and that he might have engaged in obstruction of justice, if the firing of the director and those other things were geared toward eliminating or stopping our investigation of Russian activity.”
McCabe, a longtime FBI official who briefly led the bureau after Trump fired Comey, is testifying as part of the Republican-controlled Judiciary Committee’s review of the Russia investigation. The committee already has heard testimony from former Deputy Attorneys General Rod Rosenstein and Sally Yates, as well as Comey. All have defended the bureau’s work, while conceding some mistakes, and the hearings have resulted in predictable arguments between Republicans and Democrats about the fairness of the Russia probe.
McCabe’s claims about Trump are hardly new. He wrote a book, called “The Threat,” making the case that Trump put the country at risk. And like others before him, he said the bureau had made mistakes. For example, he conceded that, knowing what he knows now, he would not have signed off on an application to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, admitting that the package contained “numerous factual errors.” Rosenstein, Yates and Comey have all said the same.
“I accept that responsibility fully,” McCabe said.
Republicans sought to press McCabe on some of the detailed decisions that the bureau made in the case — though McCabe said he did not have a perfect memory or awareness of the topics of some of their inquiries, and the FBI had denied him the opportunity to review his notes from that time period. McCabe was fired from the bureau in March 2018 over allegations he had misled investigators exploring a media disclosure; he is suing over the termination.
Graham pressed McCabe in particular about intelligence recently declassified by Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, indicating that Hillary Clinton had approved a plan to try to tie the hacking of Democratic emails by Russia to the Trump campaign and that information was passed from the CIA to the FBI. Ratcliffe has indicated that the intelligence was not verified and that it was not clear whether it reflected “exaggeration or fabrication” by Russia. Democrats noted it would also not be a crime to make negative allegations against an opponent.
Asked how many agents the bureau had assigned to examine the information, McCabe responded he was “not aware that any agents were assigned to investigate,” before being interrupted. He noted the information went to Comey and another FBI agent. Graham expressed frustration that the bureau had moved aggressively to investigate Trump, but not explored that tip.
“You can’t live in a country where they take a CIA lead and put it in the garbage can … that’s got to stop. You can’t have two standards,” Graham said.
As the hearing was beginning, Trump tweeted, “Republicans, don’t let Andrew McCabe continue to get away with totally criminal activity. What he did should never be allowed to happen to our Country again. FIGHT FOR JUSTICE!”
Democrats, meanwhile, accused Republicans of trying to re-litigate the 2016 election, instead of focusing the Judiciary Committee on more important issues.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the committee’s highest ranking Democrat, noted the Russia investigation, dubbed Crossfire Hurricane, already had been reviewed at length by the Judiciary Committee and others.
“I think, Mr. Chairman, it’s time to turn the page on Crossfire Hurricane,” she said.
The Judiciary Committee probe is one of several efforts to investigate the investigators who led the Russia probe. If Republicans maintain control of the Senate, it is perhaps the one most likely to persist after President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in.
The investigation is largely seeking to build on one by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, who found the FBI had adequate reason to initiate the probe but made serious, troubling errors in applying to monitor Page. It comes in addition to the ongoing investigation by U.S. Attorney John Durham, who was specially tapped by Attorney General William Barr to review the Russia probe.