In ‘The Threat,’ Andrew McCabe Issues the Latest Warning Call About Trump’s America

The New York Times
By Dwight Garner

On the back cover of his new book, “The Threat: How the F.B.I. Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump,” Andrew G. McCabe looks preposterously fit (he competes in triathlons). His hands are at his hips, gunslinger style. It’s as if he were a kind High Plains sheriff who had stumbled upon an intolerable rodeo of villainy.

McCabe’s prose is lean, too. (Not that he wrote this book. In his acknowledgments, he thanks “a great writing and editing team.”) The first sentence demands to be read in the voice of Jack Webb from “Dragnet”: “Between the world of chaos and the world of order stands the rule of law.”

McCabe is, of course, the former deputy director of the F.B.I. who was fired last March, just 26 hours before his scheduled retirement. He was briefly the F.B.I.’s acting director, after the dismissal of James B. Comey. The president hooted on Twitter: “Andrew McCabe FIRED, a great day for the hard working men and women of the F.B.I. — A great day for Democracy.”

This lawman, a registered Republican for the entirety of his adult life, may have been driven out of Dodge. But he has dusted off his white hat and returned with a memoir that’s better than any book typed this quickly has a right to be.

“The Threat” is a concise yet substantive account of how the F.B.I. works, at a moment when its procedures and impartiality are under attack. It’s an unambiguous indictment of Trump’s moral behavior. “Let me state the proposition openly,” McCabe writes. “The work of the F.B.I. is being undermined by the current president.”

It’s a rapid-fire G-man memoir, moving from the author’s training in Quantico (shades of “The Silence of the Lambs”) through his experiences chasing the Russian mob, the Boston Marathon bombers and others. The book is patriotic and oddly stirring. It has moments of opacity, where you feel he is holding back at crucial moments, but it is filled with disturbingly piquant details.

McCabe made headlines after a recent “60 Minutes” interview, during which he reported that top Justice Department officials, disquieted by Trump’s firing of Comey, discussed trying to encourage cabinet members to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office. He also confirmed a New York Times report that the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein, offered to wear a wire during his meetings with Trump.

These stories, frustratingly, were in the TV interview but are not in this book. But there are many other gleanings.

McCabe’s accounts of his baffled interactions with Jeff Sessions, the former attorney general, would be high comedy if they were not so dire. They are a highlight, or a lowlight, of this book. We see a Sessions who is openly racist. “Back in the old days,” he says to the author about the F.B.I., “you all only hired Irishmen. They were drunks, but they could be trusted.”

Sessions seemed not to read his daily briefings. He had “trouble focusing” and “seemed to lack basic knowledge about the jurisdictions of various arms of federal law enforcement.”

Sessions concentrated almost solely on the immigration aspect of any issue, McCabe writes, even when there was no immigration aspect. Similarly, “Sessions spent a lot of time yelling at us about the death penalty, despite the fact that the F.B.I. plays no role of any kind in whether to seek the death penalty.”

The portrait of Sessions is of a man for whom merely ordering lunch seems to be above the timberline of his intellect and curiosity.

A recent cartoon in The New Yorker depicted a person feverishly covering two walls with a link chart, with names and Scotch tape and Magic Marker, of the Trump administration’s alleged misdeeds. Another person stands watching from a doorway. The caption is: “Hon, Mueller’s got this. Come to bed.”

It turns out that Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, has strong opinions about charts. McCabe worked under him at the bureau. “He detested diagonal lines,” McCabe writes. “Some colors he liked. Some he didn’t.” McCabe explains the reasons for these preferences.

He writes about Mueller: “Sometimes he would take out the chart and suddenly you would see his face fall, as if to say the kind of thing that he would rarely say: Who made this piece of crap?”

Mueller is, in this book, the Mueller we have come to know: punctual, determined, the antithesis of casual, with a special loathing for people who speak when they don’t know what they are talking about.

“Ball-busting is his way of expressing affection,” McCabe writes. “If he said, Where does a person even find a tie like that? I knew things were fine: He never went out of his way to insult anyone he didn’t actually like.”

McCabe’s memoir joins a roster of recent and alarming books by high-ranking members of the United States’ justice and intelligence communities, each pushing back sharply against the president’s war on facts and competence.

These books include Comey’s “A Higher Loyalty” as well as “The Assault on Intelligence,” by Michael V. Hayden, the former director of the National Security Agency, and “Facts and Fears,” by James R. Clapper Jr., the former director of national intelligence, written with Trey Brown.

Each is its own Paul Revere ride of warning. Each is a reminder that we will be reading about Trump and his administration for the rest of our lives, for the exact opposite reason that we will also be reading about Lincoln and his for the rest of our lives.

There’s much more in McCabe’s book. He’s good on things like what it’s like to take a polygraph test, and the fastest way to take off a seatbelt.

He wades back through the big muddy of the Benghazi hearings. He writes of his fears about the increasing use of encryption.

He spends a good deal of time talking about Hillary Clinton and her email server. He argues that Comey, whom he admires, made crucial mistakes in how he handled the matter. “As a matter of policy, the F.B.I. does everything possible not to influence elections. In 2016, it seems we did.”

He recounts the attacks on his credibility, by Trump and others, after his wife, Jill, ran for Virginia’s State Senate as a Democrat in 2015. He hurt his own credibility, according to the F.B.I. inspector general, by making false statements about his contacts with the media.

The Trump-bashing texts between Lisa Page and Peter Strzok, his F.B.I. subordinates, did something worse: They cast doubts about the impartiality of the agency. McCabe rushes past this material too swiftly. Yet if McCabe has made mistakes, his basic decency shines through in this memoir.

He adds to our understanding of how deeply Trump remains under Vladimir Putin’s sway. After a North Korean ballistic missile test, Trump told an F.B.I. briefer that reports of the test were a hoax. McCabe writes, incredulously: “He said he knew this because Vladimir Putin had told him so.”

About Trump, the author asks, “What more could a person do to erode the credibility of the presidency?” He watches this moral limbo dancer go lower and lower. Yet he sees the president as a symptom as much as a disease.

“When is the right time,” he asks, “to give up on people’s general ability to understand any slightly complicated statement that they don’t agree with?”

Andrew McCabe
The Threat