Andrew McCabe said it took a lifetime in public service to prepare him for the test that came with his appointment as acting FBI director following President Donald Trump’s firing of former director James Comey.
McCabe said that even before the vote was counted, the FBI had learned that the Russian government was hacking Democratic emails and using false Facebook advertising. Concurrently, McCabe said, four individuals associated with President Donald Trump had come to the FBI’s attention following repeated contacts with Russian intelligence agents.
Nearly 300 people were in attendance at the Hudson Library and Historical Society April 30, when McCabe described how he got his start as a SWAT sniper with the FBI’s New York City field office, then advanced to head the organized crime division there. He would go on to head the FBI’s counter-terrorism and national security divisions before being appointed deputy FBI director by Comey.
McCabe recalled being summoned by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions on May 9, 2017, joking that such undue attention from the head of the U.S. Department of Justice is often a sign of bad news.
At the time, Comey was in California on a trip.
"I don’t know that you’ve heard, but we’ve had to fire the director of the FBI," McCabe quoted Sessions as saying.
McCabe told the crowd it was like being in an interview with a murder suspect who suddenly begins to give evidence.
"In those moments, what you’re trained to do is not react," he said. "You don’t want to say, or move, or do anything that may cause them to back off."
The termination letter had been delivered to Comey’s office at FBI headquarters and the director learned of his firing from a news report.
McCabe would end up being fired as well, just four months later, for allegedly releasing information to the media and lying to investigators with regard to a probe of Hillary Clinton’s emails. His firing, which he claims was politically motivated, came less than 48 hours before his 50th birthday, when he had planned to retire with a full pension.
Now he’s on tour with a book, "The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump."
He described his arrival in Hudson earlier that day.
"It’s very comforting to know that there are places like this, where people get together and where people can talk to one another, as opposed to cyberspace, throwing conclusions at one another," he said.
He said that he thinks the FBI has been damaged by controversies surrounding the Russia investigation and allegations of obstruction on the part of the president.
Thus, the topic of his book.
"The FBI is a great place, but very few people actually understand how we work and who we are," he said.
McCabe said he was drawn to the bureau while in law school as an intern with the U.S. Department of Justice reading through "hundreds and hundreds" of interviews related to criminal fraud investigations documented on FBI form FD 302.
It took two years, following a hiring freeze, before he was finally accepted into the FBI training academy at Quantico, Va.
There, he took classes in firearms, "tactical emergency driving," and evidence collection, among other subjects.
"How cool is this?" he recalled thinking.
Along with the other trainees, he went through scenarios in the academy’s "fake city" filled with actors, learning how to conduct searches, make arrests and do other police work.
In one scenario, he was serving a warrant on a suspect in a residence. The suspect came to the door, verified his identity, but refused to come quietly.
Instead, the man stepped back into the room with his arms outstretched.
McCabe said it had previously never occurred to him that he would have to act with violence.
"What are you going to do? You’re going to take him down!" he recalls the instructor telling him.
He said his first big case came via a phone call from a Russian store owner while he was on desk duty in New York. The man, speaking in a thick accent, said he was being extorted by a local gang of mobsters.
The call eventually led to an investigation that uncovered a classic protection racket, where a mob of gangsters was terrorizing local shop owners. The investigation put the racketeers in prison.
In following years, McCabe said, he realized he could be making a lot more money outside of government. However, it was the idea that he was serving the public that kept him with the bureau.
"I was embracing a life of altruism," he said.
Later, he headed the investigation into the Boston Marathon bombings, leading an investigative team that he said needed a lot of direction.
He said another investigation revealed a plot by Iranian agents to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States.
"It was through these repeated experiences of leading through crisis that prepared me to the point of making some very hard decision in May 2017," he said.
"We knew that the Russians at the highest level of their intelligence structure were targeting U.S. institutions," he said. "Try to think of this like an investigator. Try to think of this like an FBI agent with 20 years experience.
"We didn’t open the investigation for politics. We didn’t open it because we wanted to. We opened it because we had to," he said.
McCabe said he made the Russia investigation his primary purpose after being appointed acting FBI director – and Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel less than two weeks later, on May 17, 2017.
"For that week in May, I made sure the investigation would proceed," he said. "I knew that it would not go well for me."
The audience gave him a standing ovation, followed by a brief question-and-answer session in which the first question referred to the book title.
"How fearful should we be?" the question read.
"I am an optimist," McCabe responded. "The men and women of the FBI are going to continue to do their jobs."
He did say that it was getting harder for them to do so due to "relentless attacks by this administration and their allies on the Hill."
He advised the audience to get involved in politics by contacting their elected representatives, and by simply being informed.
Also, one more than one occasion during the presentation, he encouraged the crowd to talk to their sons, daughters, grandchildren and other young people they know.
"Suggest to them that they should consider a life in public service," he said. "That’s what we need – more talented, dedicated young people."
Eric Marotta can be reached at 330-541-9433, or firstname.lastname@example.org.