For more specific details of what is going on, check out Lawfare’s wonderful piece on what we do, and don’t, know about this event.
Last Friday the political world was rocked, a weekly occurrence these days, by the surprise firing of former Deputy Director of the FBI Andrew McCabe. Attorney General Jeff Beauregard Sessions III made the announcement two days before McCabe had publicly planned to retire—his 50th birthday which would allow him to access full retirement benefits.
The dominant media narrative, at least in the center-left and left wing media bubbles I am connected to, is one of indignation. This is being painted as an attempt to discredit the Mueller Investigation, the FBI, and a clear example of obstruction of justice. Former CIA Director John Brennan’s Twitter feed provides a wonderful example of this narrative:
When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history. You may scapegoat Andy McCabe, but you will not destroy America…America will triumph over you. https://t.co/uKppoDbduj
— John O. Brennan (@JohnBrennan) March 17, 2018
This narrative, like most narratives, is missing a crucial detail: this firing was largely the product of an internal investigation of McCabe’s actions as an FBI agent. Specifically, in a wider investigation of the FBI’s investigation of the Clinton e-mail scandal, the Justice Department Office of Inspector General found that McCabe was engaged in leaks and “lacked candor.” While lacking candor may not seem a huge problem to us, it is a fireable offense in the FBI (this has been upheld as legally sound in court). Based on the Inspector General’s findings, the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility recommended McCabe be fired. Given that both of these internal agencies are run by career FBI agents, and the latter is headed by a man appointed by Robert Mueller, I am inclined to believe that McCabe should have been fired (put me down at 95% yes).
Those disinclined to give this administration the benefit of the doubt get around this entire discussion by saying that the firing was (potentially) tainted by this administration’s campaign against the FBI and the Mueller investigation. Tweets like these certainly don’t help anyone who disagrees:
FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe is racing the clock to retire with full benefits. 90 days to go?!!!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 23, 2017
Andrew McCabe FIRED, a great day for the hard working men and women of the FBI – A great day for Democracy. Sanctimonious James Comey was his boss and made McCabe look like a choirboy. He knew all about the lies and corruption going on at the highest levels of the FBI!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 17, 2018
That man is the President of the United States, by the way.
In other words, though justified the firing may have been illegitimate because of President Trump and Attorney General Sessions’ motives. Maybe Sessions fired McCabe now solely to discredit him as a witness in the Mueller investigation and the Inspector General’s report is just cover.
Or maybe not.
I have an alternative explanation that helps explain another strange event: Chief of Staff, and supposed adult-in-the-room, John Kelly said that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was on the toilet when informed of his firing. To be clear, according to The Daily Beast, John Kelly said this in a roomful of reporters and Whitehouse staffers, while Tillerson was still Secretary of State.
Why would Jeff Sessions fire a career FBI officer his boss has been publicly critical of right before the officer’s retirement (potentially despite normal protocol) and why would John Kelly humiliate a Secretary of State his boss has often criticized? The firings themselves may make sense but the actions of Sessions and Kelly to seemingly attack the character of these (newly unemployed) men?
Both of these events make sense if they are instrumentally beneficial to Sessions and Kelly. Considering that rumors of firings have swirled around both of them, I think they saw a chance to hurt one of the President’s opponents as a way to be in his good graces. By all reliable, and even more unreliable, accounts Mr. Trump is enjoys getting his way and seeing those he dislikes made miserable. Given this knowledge, why wouldn’t Jeff Sessions and John Kelly humiliate someone to stay on the President’s good side for another day? They have done much worse things to many more people after all.
For now this is all speculation, and it is possible the firing is part of a conspiracy to obstruct justice, but sometimes the benign explanation is the right one. And other times the petty explanation is accurate. With this administration I will always bet on pettiness.