James Comey’s replacement at the FBI may be even more controversial than Comey himself. He takes the reins at the FBI during one of its most tumultuous moments in recent memory—and his temporary leadership there may not be enough to calm a bureau that’s reeling.
Andrew McCabe, who was the FBI’s deputy director until President Donald Trump fired Comey, became interim director of the bureau after his old boss was fired. But while agents at FBI headquarters in D.C. and in its field offices around the country are grieving and angry, McCabe could struggle to stabilize things. That’s because of a controversy that erupted last summer when reports revealed his wife took almost $500,000 from the political organization of Terry McAuliffe, the Virginia governor and longtime Clinton ally, for her state senate campaign.
The news drew calls for McCabe to publicly recuse himself from anything involving the bureau’s investigation into Clinton’s email scandal. But he didn’t do that, and conservatives haven’t forgotten.
“He should be removed as acting director and then either fired or demoted,” Mark Corallo, spokesperson for John Ashcroft when he was Attorney General, told The Daily Beast. “When he did not recuse himself from the investigation despite knowing his wife received major campaign contributions from Terry McAuliffe, he broke the ethics rules and tainted the investigation. Time for him to go.”
FBI insiders pointed out to The Daily Beast that McCabe is one of few bureau directors to actually start his career as an agent there. While most recent directors come from outside the bureau—Comey was Deputy Attorney General at the Justice Department, and Robert Mueller was a U.S. Attorney—McCabe has built his career at the FBI for more than 20 years, starting in New York. That experience may give him special appeal to the bureau’s rank and file.
He’s described by some people who know him as seasoned and levelheaded, and also politically savvy—demonstrating special acumen for climbing the bureau’s ranks. A former senior intelligence official described McCabe as “cunning,” and said he was very attuned to the political dynamics in the bureau. The official said he expects McCabe to keep his head down during this turmoil.
Perhaps he should’ve kept a lower profile in recent months. McCabe and White House Chief of Staff Reince Preibus discussed the investigation into Russia’s election interference—a likely violation of Justice Department which forbid such contact during an ongoing probe.
Some who have worked with McCabe at the bureau for years had the opposite to say about the current acting director. One FBI source described him as “an empty suit” and “non-entity.” Three other FBI sources had similar views.
“Andy McCabe is in way over his head,” said a recently retired senior FBI official who’s spoken in support of McCabe in the past.
There’s speculation that McCabe may not last as interim director until the Senate confirms his ultimate replacement, and he’s already in the crosshairs of the political right. A well-wired federal law enforcement source told The Daily Beast shortly after Comey’s firing that rumors immediately started swirling that McCabe could be next. He’s scheduled to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee in a public hearing on Thursday morning.
‘A Death in the Family’
For the time being, FBI agents are facing confusion, grief, and anger.
“Everyone feels like there has been a death in the family,” said one counterterrorism agent.
“We’re basically sitting shiva,” said another agent, referring to the Jewish mourning period just after a funeral.
At least a dozen agents posted photos on their private Facebook pages of themselves with Comey (or just of Comey). Some made those their temporary profile picture—a gesture agents usually reserve for when a colleague dies in the line of duty.
Another agent was pessimistic that things will get better.
“The real impact will be the distrust of the agency under the leadership of the new director,” the agent said. “No matter who gets the job, there will be a cloud of suspicion because the President is unpopular with much of the population. That bad faith will make it harder to do my job.”
A senior-level FBI source was more candid. If Trump has declared war on the bureau’s leadership, the source said, then the president should expect “nothing less in return.”
There’s no sign things will get easier anytime soon. Sources said they expect any Comey replacement will struggle to get through Senate confirmation, especially given the number of Republicans who have criticized the way Trump fired Comey.
McCabe’s first public appearance as the FBI head will come on Thursday at 10 a.m., when he testifies at the Senate intelligence committee’s Worldwide Threats Hearing along with top officials from the intelligence community.
It’s unclear if McCabe will be able to say anything to comfort FBI agents. One veteran agent in the FBI’s criminal division responded to a message from The Daily Beast this way: “Who cares, nothing matters, no one knows anything, everything sucks.”