By Frank Bowman
It was reported this morning that FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, long a target of Mr. Trump’s ire, has resigned.
McCabe has been under attack from the White House and its allies because his wife received campaign donations during her unsuccessful 2015 bid for a Virginia legislative seat from a political action committee associated with Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, who in turn was a prominent supporter of Hillary Clinton. The implication has been that McCabe was biased against Trump and in favor of Secretary Clinton during the FBI investigation of the Clinton e-mail scandal and somehow influenced the outcome.
Of course, as carefully reported here by Politifact, the facts don’t support the allegation. As Politifact summarizes the matter:
At the time of the contribution, the candidate’s husband was not directly involved in the FBI probe of Clinton’s email server, according to the FBI. The bureau says that by the time he had some oversight role in the Clinton investigation, the election involving his wife had been over for three months. Meanwhile, the decision not to charge Clinton was a recommendation made by the director of the FBI [not by McCabe].
I am of two minds about McCabe’s departure. On the one hand, in the short term, it may be just as well to have him out of the picture. Regardless of the facts of the matter, it is not helpful to the Bureau in the present moment to have a Deputy Director with family links, however attenuated, to Secretary Clinton’s political allies. McCabe’s resignation means one less distraction from the substance of the investigations swirling around Mr. Trump.
On the other hand, McCabe’s departure is profoundly disturbing for at least two reasons. The first is that an honorable public servant should not have his career cut short by unsubstantiated slurs from the President of the United States.
The second, and deeper, concern is that the attack on McCabe is yet another Trumpian assault on essential norms that have long governed relations between the White House and the career civil service generally and federal law enforcement agencies in particular. Central to a functioning modern state is confidence that the government’s ordinary employees perform their tasks free of partisan political bias. To help ensure that civil servants will do so, the Hatch Act of 1939 requires that career federal employees surrender some of the rights of political participation enjoyed by everyone else. Conflict of interest regulations go still further to prevent, so far as possible, even the appearance of favoritism or bias. Equally importantly, the civil service has for many decades cultivated an ethos of political neutrality, offering professional diligence in the service of the law and the agency’s mission, rather than the party of the moment.
This ethos is particularly strong in the Justice Department and federal criminal justice investigative agencies. Anyone who has served in these bodies through several changes of administration recognizes that new presidents bring policy changes at the margins, but the focus of the career people remains on finding facts and enforcing the law. The internal norm is that personal political affiliations don’t matter and are usually unknown to one’s co-workers. No one worries that career prosecutors or agents will go harder on targets who are of the opposite party or easier on targets who share their political affiliation.
To be fair, these norms of professional even-handedness are sometimes strained in the highest profile cases. But to an impressive degree federal law enforcement agencies have lived up to the expectation of neutral professionalism. Which is why both congress and the public have traditionally accorded the results of DOJ investigations a degree of respect they would never offer to the work of state or local governments.
It is precisely in order to protect the tradition of independent judgment so essential to its institutional mission that the Justice Department (of which the FBI is a component) has long jealously resisted White House efforts to meddle in investigations or prosecutions.
Trump’s now-successful attack on McCabe is an assault on the federal civil service in general, and the independence of the Justice Department more particularly. In effect, Mr. Trump’s argument against McCabe is that a career FBI agent cannot be trusted if his wife ran for state elective office on the ticket of the party opposing the president. And that, in turn, is fast translating into the demand from Trump adherents and their media cheerleaders that no Democrat, or indeed any Republican not slavishly attached to Mr. Trump, can participate in investigations that might reflect adversely on the present administration. And, of course, Mr. Trump has already embraced the view that he is entitled to “loyalty” — and protection — from “his” Attorney General and “his” FBI Director.
I have written before about the continuing Trumpist subversion of the Justice Department and the grave consequences that will flow if it succeeds. McCabe’s resignation takes us a tiny step closer to the point of no return.