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'Real and present danger’: How Trump rhetoric is impacting the FBI after the Mar-a-Lago search

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The residence of former US President Donald Trump at Mar-A-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, on August 9, 2022. (GIORGIO VIERA/AFP via Getty Images)
The residence of former US President Donald Trump at Mar-A-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, on August 9, 2022. (GIORGIO VIERA/AFP via Getty Images)

Republicans are intensifying their criticism of the FBI after the search of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence.

Former Vice President Mike Pence says the party can criticize the attorney general without going after rank and file FBI agents.

“Our party stands with the men and women who serve on the thin blue line at the federal, state and local level," Pence said.

But former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe says that’s not the message being heard in the GOP’s recent rhetoric.

“They fan those flames because it's politically advantageous," McCabe says. "But by doing that, they are creating a real and present danger to law enforcement, judges, people associated with government.”

Today, On Point: We talk to Andrew McCabe and a longtime veteran special agent about the search and rising threats of violence.

Guests

Andrew McCabe, former deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) from February 2016 to March 2018.

Dennis Lormel, he spent 27 years at the Federal Bureau of Investigations. President of the Society of Former Special Agents.

Interview Highlights with Andrew McCabe

KIMBERLY ATKINS STOHR: Have you been surprised at the kinds of rhetoric and the threats that have been directed to the FBI since they executed the search at Mar-a-Lago?

ANDREW McCABE: I guess I would have to sadly say I'm not surprised. Simply because of the heated rhetoric that seems to surround all of the issues of our politics lately, particularly those dealing with the former president. And then on top of that, the irresponsible and inflammatory way that the former president and many of his political supporters have discussed the search, in the aftermath of the search at Mar-a-Lago. I think when you put all those things together, the fact that we have an elevated threat picture, targeting the FBI and its people, is a pretty foreseeable result.

ATKINS STOHR: You have firsthand experience, about what it's like when there is a relentless pressure and scrutiny on FBI officials in the face of a very public investigation, particularly one where the subject is very high profile. Can you talk about that, what it is like when the FBI is conducting an investigation, while simultaneously facing that kind of scrutiny and rhetoric?

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McCABE: Sure. It's thinking back to my experiences in the FBI as deputy director during 2016, when we were trying to complete the investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server. And at the same time trying to figure out a really unprecedented level of Russian malign cyber activity. And then ultimately the question of whether or not the Russians were assisting or coordinating with members of the Trump campaign in any way. It's just an incredibly, incredibly stressful situation. Really issues of first impression for any FBI director, deputy director or FBI agents and investigators, really, to have to confront.

And it is not a situation that any of us ever wish to be in. The FBI ... prides itself on being a independent institution. FBI people, of course, have their own opinions about things, and hopefully are engaged as productive citizens and in politics, on a very personal way. But that stuff does not come into the office, if you are an FBI agent, or a professional support staff or a leader. It just so happened that the matters that we felt we had an obligation to investigate were inextricably intertwined with political figures and the political election.

And that really ratchets up the pressure on the people involved, and the people overseeing those investigations to make very hard decisions. Carefully and in a way that's effective in the investigative context, but also fair and as unobstructed as possible. And some of those decisions I think we made very well, others we made mistakes on. But I think all of that, when you put it in the context of the immense pressure, and attention and the public interest in those investigations, it's just a very, very kind of toxic environment. And one that's hard to navigate as an investigator or an FBI leader.

ATKINS STOHR: So talk about being a leader during your tenure. You face very public criticism from the former president and his allies, then Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Jeff Sessions actually terminated you. A subsequent civil lawsuit you brought reversed that decision, expunged it, and restored all of your benefits and your retirement status. But just talk a little bit personally. How was it to conduct your job while facing the very public criticism? What was it like for you, and how did it affect those below you?

McCABE: It's so strange ... and it was so unprecedented. It's hard to describe. But I'll tell you, it's unbelievably distracting and kind of personally terrifying in a way. I remember in October of 2016, President Trump began to attack me and my family personally, particularly my wife, in his campaign speeches and his rallies in front of his supporters. And as a leader in the bureau and particularly one involved in investigations of at that time, the president's political rival, Hillary Clinton. You know, you have this incredible pressure to not acknowledge it. You certainly don't say anything publicly. You don't respond to then-candidate Trump's attacks. You try to ignore it, and brush it off, and just keep your head down and keep working and get your job done. In the fair and straightforward way that we do that work.

But, you know, you're surrounded by subordinate leaders and investigators and people who are looking to you to set a tone as a leader in the organization. And they hear these attacks, and they see these things and they're wondering, like, what's going to happen? It's totally reasonable for them to start thinking like, is this going to change his decisions about things or, you know, affect the way that we do this work? And you absolutely cannot let that happen.

So I tried to the best of my ability to navigate those things by really holding my piece, and not ever saying anything, never responding. I don't have really any sort of social media profile or activity. I didn't then and I still don't now. And to try to constantly convince the folks that you're working with that ... it doesn't matter what you're seeing in the news, we are going to continue to do our jobs in the fair and dispassionate but aggressive way that we always do, as FBI people. And setting that tone as a leader is absolutely essential. And it's even more important, you know, under these times of great stress.

ATKINS STOHR: So I want to talk about this search warrant that was executed for Mar-a-Lago a little bit. Can you explain what goes into first obtaining and then executing a search warrant like this? I would suspect that the process is even more stringent when the person involved is a former president.

McCABE: Absolutely. So any search warrant is predicated basically on two things. The government has to prove to a federal judge two issues. One, that a crime may have been committed. And two, that evidence of that crime is located in the location that you are requesting to search. So in this instance, it would be obviously Mar-a-Lago, in the former president's residence. And ... the burden of proof is not as high as beyond a reasonable doubt. It is a very simple kind of preponderance of the evidence standard for a search warrant.

So you'd go forward to the judge and present the facts in an affidavit and make the argument that a crime has been committed and that evidence is located in that location. That's obviously what happened here. Now, in a normal situation, that happens probably hundreds of times a day around the country and FBI investigations in every state. I can tell you from personal experience dealing with these very high profile, volatile, political, politically connected subjects, this is something that was discussed and considered at the very highest levels of the Justice Department and the FBI to include the attorney general himself, as we now know, for probably weeks and weeks before it went forward. And every fact in that affidavit I'm sure was confirmed to the absolute, you know, greatest extent.

In addition to that, the government always has a responsibility to use the least intrusive means possible when conducting an investigation. So before you get to a search warrant, you do other things, like serve a subpoena, like make contact and request access to materials that you think are maybe located at Mar-a-Lago. We now know that all of those things happened over the course of many, many months.

So I have to say, as search warrants go, just from the information that we know publicly, this one was absolutely as clear as day. The government knew, based even just on their own meeting with the president's staff, former president's staff at Mar-a-Lago. They knew that materials that were classified, and sensitive and government records were located on the property. So I would expect that the affidavit they presented to the judge was really beyond any question, any reasonable question.

ATKINS STOHR: And you said that FBI agents, when they enter this field, they don't think about investigating former presidents, that's not what they do. And this isn't their preferred position to be in.

McCABE: That's absolutely right. Like nobody wants to be caught up in an investigation that's political. But at the same time, we can't back away from an investigation simply because it implicates a political person.

ATKINS STOHR: … You were talking about investigating the president isn't something the FBI seeks to do, but it's something that it can't shy away from doing. Please continue.

McCABE: FBI agents think of themselves as going in and conducting investigations and, you know, locking up drug dealers, and violent criminals, and people who abuse and traffic children. And all of this wonderful work that that agents do every day around the country. And unfortunately, there are also investigations into political corruption and public matters. They are absolutely necessary, but not the kind of work that most agents are looking to conduct. Because everybody knows the issues and the pressures that come with them. Those things are magnified a thousand fold when the subject of your investigation, or the person implicated by it, is a former president.

And particularly one who has a history of attacking people who are involved in investigations of him. But to not do that work simply because it's political, simply because you're concerned about how, in this case, former President Trump would react, would be a much bigger fall problem.

We cannot take the chance that we create two separate systems of justice in this country. To shy away from investigating issues having to do with the former president would essentially be doing just that, creating a political class of people who are not subjected to the same rules and law enforcement rule of law that the rest of us are. So it is a stress-filled and tough part of the job of being an FBI agent, or an FBI leader. But it's absolutely essential that they do it the same way for everyone.

ATKINS STOHR: There was reporting over the weekend by the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal about FBI Director Christopher Wray's desire to stay out of the spotlight and political fray. But at the same time reinforced to senior FBI officials his anger about the attacks on the FBI and assure that everything is being done to protect them. How does Director Wray walk that line of trying to stay out of the politics, but also confront the political blowback that he and his agents are facing, particularly when it comes to threats against them?

McCABE: Well, I think first and foremost, there's nothing inherently political about defending your people. I think that, you know, I wasn't just an FBI leader, I was an FBI agent for 21 years. And I know what it feels like when the organization is being attacked publicly. You look to the director, for a sign, for a lead, for a message that he supports the work that you're doing, and that he supports the FBI mission. And those displays of support, they can't just be internal.

FBI people want to see that their leadership defends them publicly as well, which is what they deserve as dedicated public servants who are simply doing their job as according to the law. So I think you have to do that as the FBI leader, and that's not political. And to the extent that that risks provoking the ire of political figures who have spoken out against the bureau, then so be it. That to me is a risk that you have to take to defend your folks when they deserve it. And they certainly do now.

So, you know, I was critical of Director Wray initially. There were a few days there when this all started off that we really did not hear much from him. It's maybe a difference in our approach to the job, but I think that a full throated endorsement in defense of his people, both internally and externally, is the way to not only stand up for the institution, but to support the people that are doing this work every day.

ATKINS STOHR: ... Some of that reporting over the weekend that I referred to indicated that Director Wray is concerned about mistakes of past FBI directors. I think most notably, former Director Comey spoke very publicly about the investigation into then candidate Hillary Clinton's e-mails. Do you think that is a line here that he's trying to walk, to be more circumspect in this moment? I know you said you think that it needed a full throated response.

McCABE: I'm sure that the specter of former Director Comey's decisions, particularly within the Clinton email case, and announcing the results of our investigation, on I think it was July 5th of 2016, I'm sure that is hanging over Director Wray's head, as it should. The comments in that statement were too detailed, too focused on the case, probably should not have been made by the FBI director at all. But that doesn't mean that in this situation, you can't make an effective public statement that addresses public concern and also defends your people.

And I think that A.G. Garland did exactly that. He had a sound legal basis for addressing this very corrosive and destructive narrative that's out there, kind of, you know, distracting his workforce and undermining the work that they're doing. He was very clear in his defense of DOJ and FBI people, which I thought was great. And I thought he thread the needle, you know, particularly well. So I think that's an example of doing it the right way. And I think the A.G. being a representative of that, he's the right spokesperson.

Nevertheless, there is also a role for the FBI director to stand up for your people if you feel like they're doing the right thing. Doesn't mean that FBI people don't make mistakes. They do. It's an organization of human beings. And when people make mistakes, then you have to be public in your acknowledgment of that, in terms of holding people accountable and improving the performance of the organization.

But this is a place where, look, what these folks did was executed a search warrant. They went in front of a judge. They made a showing of probable cause. It appears from the way they conducted the search that they gave the former president every possible consideration and courtesy that they could. And showing up during business hours, and doing it in a very kind of quiet way. And the media didn't even know about it until the former president made his public statement. So, yeah, there's nothing that we know at this point that undermines or would discredit the work that they did.

ATKINS STOHR: One legal battle that is underway right now is whether to unseal the underlying affidavit for the search. That is something that the Department of Justice opposes. Some other folks, including news organizations, want it released, in the interest of transparency here. What impact would unsealing that affidavit have? Isn't transparency important? But could it impede the investigation?

McCABE: Sure. So transparency is important, but there are some other very important things to consider here, and they kind of go on both sides of the coin. On the one side, releasing all of the facts and information that you had at the point of the search warrant, before the investigation is concluded, before anyone has even been charged with violating the law, runs the risk of exposing the investigation and the witnesses and sources of information that you've developed, that could really undermine the future progress of the investigation, and undermine the bureau's ability to kind of mitigate a potential threat to national security here.

On the other hand, releasing that sort of detailed factual argument that's in the affidavit also runs the risk of prejudicing the public's opinion against the subject of the investigation unfairly. Like, let's remember. It hasn't even been alleged that someone has committed a crime yet. The bureau is doing the work right now to try to figure out if that's happened, and to try to understand whether or not they should go before a judge and request a charge, an arrest warrant, that sort of thing.

So we're not even there yet. So you run the risk of really undermining the effectiveness of the investigation and, you know, unfairly harming the reputation of the people involved.

ATKINS STOHR: I have one last question for you. Our time is running out, but what do you think the solution is when it comes to the FBI really battling back from the politicization of the organization? Do you think there is reason for hope that a solution to this can be found?

McCABE: Sure. And, you know, as a unapologetic supporter of the FBI, like I'm totally biased here. I'll admit that upfront. But I believe there's only one way for the FBI to conduct itself, and that is apolitically, based on the facts and the law, to stand up to the enormous obligation they have to investigate threats to national security and possible violations of federal criminal law, and just keep doing that work in a fair and unbiased manner.

What's happened, people talk about the politicization of the FBI. It's not that the FBI has become politicized. It's that the results of their work in the hands of politicians has been spun and attacked in political ways. And really like that's the period that we need to pass through here. It would be enormously helpful to everyone, not just the FBI, but the people who depend on their work, for folks in political leadership positions on both sides of the aisle, to discuss the FBI and their work in a way that's not designed to curry favor, or appeal to the base, or whip up people's frustrations and grievances.

And simply stick to the facts the way that the FBI does. Conduct appropriate oversight, hold the FBI accountable, when that's necessary. But let's not constantly be trying to cast every decision that's made in the Hoover Building as something that's seeking some sort of political advantage or disadvantage, because it's simply not. And it's an unfair and really unhelpful way to treat that organization.

This program aired on August 22, 2022.

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