WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions is reviewing a recommendation to fire former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe, just days before he is scheduled to retire Sunday, people briefed on the matter said. McCabe was a frequent target of attack from President Donald Trump, who taunted him both publicly and privately.
McCabe is ensnared in an internal review that includes an examination of his decision in 2016 to allow FBI officials to speak with reporters about an investigation into the Clinton Foundation. The Justice Department's inspector general concluded that McCabe was not forthcoming during the review, according to the people briefed on the matter. That yet-to-be-released report triggered an FBI disciplinary process that recommended his termination — leaving Sessions to either accept or reverse that decision.
Lack of candor is a fireable offense, but like so much at the FBI, McCabe's fate is also entangled in presidential politics and the special counsel investigation. He was involved from the beginning in the investigation into the Trump campaign's ties to Russia. He is also a potential witness in the inquiry into whether Trump tried to obstruct justice.
Trump's supporters have tried to cast McCabe as part of a "deep state" that operates in secret to undermine the administration. Trump has goaded Sessions into taking action against him.
Now, Sessions is the final arbiter of McCabe's dismissal, shortly before his retirement takes effect Sunday. Though no decision has been made, people inside the Justice Department expect him to be fired before Friday, a decision that would jeopardize his pension as a 21-year FBI veteran.
Under FBI rules, internal reports are referred to the bureau's Office of Professional Responsibility, which makes disciplinary recommendations. McCabe can appeal that recommendation to the attorney general. A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to say whether McCabe would be fired.
"The department follows a prescribed process by which an employee may be terminated," said the spokeswoman, Sarah Isgur Flores. "That process includes recommendations from career employees, and no termination decision is final until the conclusion of that process. We have no personnel announcements at this time."
McCabe declined to comment. His friends and allies have said that he denies any wrongdoing in his dealings with journalists or the inspector general. He stepped down in January and took a leave of absence under pressure over the looming inspector general's report.
McCabe is a career agent, not a political appointee, so Trump has no direct say in his fate. The decision nonetheless comes at a moment of turnover in Trump's national security team. On Tuesday, the president fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and named CIA director Mike Pompeo to replace him. He tapped a veteran clandestine officer, Gina Haspel, to lead the CIA.
Firing McCabe, even on the recommendation of the disciplinary office, would be controversial. Among McCabe's allies, the decision would raise the specter that Sessions was influenced by Trump's frequent derisive comments. No deputy director in the history of the FBI has been fired.
But Sessions would be able to point to a critical inspector general's report and say he followed Justice Department protocol. The details of why the inspector general viewed McCabe as not forthcoming are not clear. Though FBI disciplinary records show that drunken driving, domestic violence and assaults have been punished by suspension, when agents are found to have shown a lack of candor under oath, they are commonly fired.
The inspector general, Michael Horowitz, announced last year that he would investigate several contentious decisions made at the FBI and Justice Department during the 2016 presidential campaign. In November, Horowitz indicated that he planned to issue a single report this spring encompassing his entire review, on matters including the FBI's investigation of Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server.
There are no indications that Horowitz is prepared to release a broad report this week. It is not clear why he opted to handle McCabe separately and refer him for discipline before the release of the full report. A spokesman for Horowitz has declined to comment.
Trump has attacked members of the FBI and the Justice Department for much of his first year in office. But few have been the target of presidential ire like McCabe. Trump has repeatedly remarked on the fact that McCabe's wife, Jill, ran as a Democrat for a state Senate seat in Virginia. Her campaign received hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from a political committee run by Terry McAuliffe, the Virginia governor at the time and a longtime ally of the Clintons.
Jill McCabe lost the race and Andrew McCabe was later promoted to deputy director, where he oversaw the investigation into Clinton. No charges were filed in that case, and Trump has pointed to the donations to McCabe's wife's campaign as evidence of FBI bias.
In meetings with McCabe, the president questioned how he had voted and needled him about his wife, calling her a "loser," according to people familiar with the conversations.
The precise allegations against McCabe will not be clear until the full report is released. But what is publicly known does not fit neatly into Trump's theory of McCabe as a Democratic operator. McCabe has described himself to friends as a lifelong Republican voter.
The allegations revolve around disclosures to The Wall Street Journal, which revealed in October 2016 a dispute between the FBI and Justice Department over how to proceed in an investigation into the Clinton family's foundation. The article said that the Justice Department would not authorize subpoenas in the case. Some FBI agents, the article said, believed that McCabe had put the brakes on the investigation. Others rejected that notion.
The inspector general has concluded that McCabe authorized FBI officials to provide information for that article. The public affairs office arranged a phone call to discuss the case, a common practice in the federal government when officials believe that a journalist has only part of the story.
In the Journal story, a person described as close to McCabe pushed back on the notion that he had tried to shut down the Clinton Foundation investigation. To the contrary, the person described a tense conversation with the Justice Department in which McCabe insisted his agents had the authority to keep investigating.
The article was a negative one for the Clinton campaign — not Trump. It was published just days before the election, after the FBI reopened its investigation into Clinton's email practices. The article, including the FBI disclosures, made it clear that some agents saw evidence of wrongdoing by the Clinton Foundation that was worth investigating.
McCabe joined the FBI after law school and rose quickly through the ranks. Under former FBI director James Comey, he ascended through several senior leadership jobs, and it was clear that he was being groomed for the bureau's No. 2 position. His rise angered some rank-and-file agents. But supporters viewed him as a sophisticated, intellectual choice for a job that has become an integral part of the nation's intelligence community.
The deputy director is the chief operations officer at the FBI, a job that requires managing relationships with the White House and Congress. That task became unusually difficult as agents investigated the Trump campaign, straining relationships with Trump. Democrats in Congress, meanwhile, criticized the FBI for failing to do enough in that inquiry, while Republicans accused agents of drumming up an investigation based on shoddy evidence.