McCabe firing: Witness intimidation?

Friday’s firing of former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe a day before he qualified for a substantial pension benefit is a bit imponderable given the scant details of the alleged misconduct. But considering the somewhat tepid claims associated with the still-secret internal investigation (unauthorized leaking to the press and “lack of candor” presumably in discussing the leak with the inspector general) versus his importance as a witness in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian meddling in the last election, it’s pretty easy to draw some conclusions.

First, one has to observe it’s all gotten highly personal and political. President Donald J. Trump has been attacking Mr. McCabe for months — and even called for him to be stripped of his pension — spinning all kinds of Fox News-talking-head-concocted conspiracy theories accusing the career law enforcement officer of being in the bag for Hillary Clinton. After the firing was announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the president went on a Twitter tantrum attacking not only Mr. Mr. McCabe but former FBI Director James Comey and, of course, Mr. Mueller. No doubt Mr. McCabe’s own public statement after the firing helped fuel the president’s ire: Mr. McCabe said his firing was because he’s a key witness in the firing of Mr. Comey and its aftermath.

“This attack on my credibility is one part of a larger effort not just to slander me personally, but to taint the FBI, law enforcement, and intelligence professionals more generally. It is part of this Administration's ongoing war on the FBI and the efforts of the Special Counsel investigation, which continue to this day. Their persistence in this campaign only highlights the importance of the Special Counsel's work,” Mr. McCabe wrote in his statement.

That is a troubling sentiment. It is not customary for a U.S. president to declare war on the nation’s premier law enforcement agency like a Prohibition crime boss. But let’s say Mr. McCabe did make some mistakes and the internal review that allegedly called for his dismissal was justified. That still doesn’t explain the fury of the president’s response (best measured perhaps by the exclamation points and caps lock phrases including “A total WITCH HUNT with massive conflicts of interest!”) that seemed mostly directed at derailing the Mueller inquiry and impugning the integrity of anyone associated with it. It was so bad that some Republicans felt obligated to step forward to remind President Trump that it would be unwise to fire Mr. Mueller.

“As I have said before, if he tried to do that, that would be the beginning of the end of his presidency, because we're a rule of law nation," was the response on CNN from Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican. Even better was the instruction to Mr. Trump by South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy that ought to be much on the minds of all Americans: "If you've done nothing wrong, you should want the investigation to be as fulsome and thorough as possible." Even the ever-cautious Speaker Paul Ryan warned the president Sunday through a spokesman that Mr. Mueller and his team “should be able to do their job.”

Setting aside the irony of a president who lies as frequently and as “bigly” as Mr. Trump does (and that’s too well documented to even reasonably dispute) and whose White House leaks like a sieve, passing such a harsh judgment on FBI stalwarts like Mr. McCabe, who prosecuted Russian organized crime figures in New York, or Mr. Comey, who declined a loyalty pledge to the president knowing it would get him fired, or Mr. Mueller, a former Marine Corps officer and Vietnam veteran as well as the longest serving FBI director since J. Edgar Hoover, the attacks by Mr. Trump are simply beneath the office no matter the occupant or the circumstances. And it’s also a bit odd that Mr. Sessions, who had promised to recuse himself from the Russian inquiry, felt he could freely fire a key witness in it — on an apparently speeded-up timetable to boot.

Does the FBI sometimes make mistakes? Absolutely. We thought Mr. Comey’s decision late in the 2016 campaign to publicly announce that he had reopened the investigation into Ms. Clinton’s emails was irresponsible, misguided and may have been the game-changer of the election, but we did not assume he was in the bag for her opponent or proclaim him part of some ridiculous “Deep State” conspiracy. With each tweet, Mr. Trump seems to further incriminate himself. Whatever the Russia investigation uncovers, there will be enough residual self-inflicted damage by this White House to hamper the rest of the president’s term one way or the other.

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