Updated at 10:25 p.m. ET
Before Washington, D.C., had fully processed the late-night firing of Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, who was let go by Attorney General Jeff Sessions less than 48 hours before his planned retirement after more than two decades of service to the bureau, the saga took several new, head-spinning turns Saturday.
McCabe had taken notes and memos about his interactions with President Trump, similar to those prepared by his former boss and colleague James Comey, a source familiar with the issue told NPR. The source also said the McCabe documents corroborate Comey’s account — which could play a key role in Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into obstruction of justice.
A personal lawyer for the president pointed to McCabe’s ouster to argue that it was time for the Justice Department to end the special counsel investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race and of any ties between Russians and the Trump campaign.
The attorney’s remarks — though not intended to speak for the president — set off yet another round of concern among congressional Democrats about the status of the special counsel investigation and possible ways to protect it — and its leader, former FBI Director Mueller — from being terminated by the White House or the Justice Department.
By Saturday evening, the president would echo his personal attorney, writing on Twitter “The Mueller probe should never have been started in that there was no collusion and there was no crime. It was based on fraudulent activities and a Fake Dossier ….”
And, Saturday afternoon McCabe’s onetime boss, Comey, sparred directly on Twitter with the president, who fired the FBI director in May of last year. Comey, on the verge of releasing a book, told Trump that soon the American people “can judge for themselves who is honorable and who is not.”
Sessions announced late Friday that he had terminated McCabe’s employment with the FBI “effective immediately.”
The attorney general pointed to internal recommendations from the Justice Department’s inspector general and the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility that found “McCabe had made an unauthorized disclosure to the news media and lacked candor — including under oath — on multiple occasions,” Sessions said in a statement announcing the firing.
“The FBI expects every employee to adhere to the highest standards of honesty, integrity, and accountability. As the OPR proposal stated, ‘all FBI employees know that lacking candor under oath results in dismissal and that our integrity is our brand,’ ” Sessions also said.
But McCabe said his firing was politically motivated. “I am being singled out and treated this way because of the role I played, the actions I took, and the events I witnessed in the aftermath of the firing of James Comey,” McCabe said in his own late-night statement Friday. The former FBI official said he had been targeted because he can “corroborate former Director Comey’s accounts of his discussions with the President.”
McCabe’s attorney said in his own statement that the White House has attacked McCabe since last year with the result of putting “inappropriate pressure” on Sessions to oust McCabe. “This intervention by the White House in the DOJ disciplinary process is unprecedented, deeply unfair, and dangerous,” attorney Michael Bromwich said.
Bromwich also argued that the process by which the termination decision had been made was unfair and had been rushed, limiting the time that he and McCabe had to access, review and analyze the relevant evidence in order to prepare a response.
The “concerted effort to accelerate the process in order to beat the ticking clock of [McCabe’s] scheduled retirement violates any sense of decency and basic principles of fairness,” Bromwich said. (Sessions, for his part, said the internal investigation of McCabe had been “extensive and fair” and undertaken “according to Department of Justice Procedure.”)
The McCabe firing added yet more fuel to the Russia imbroglio, an at least year-long conflagration that never wants for oxygen in Washington, D.C.
“This will be known as the Friday night slaughter,” presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said on CNN soon after news of the ouster broke. Brinkley was referencing President Richard M. Nixon’s infamous “Saturday Night Massacre” of several senior Justice Department officials during the Watergate scandal.
A personal lawyer for Trump seized on the firing and suggested it should provide motivation for the Justice Department to end the Mueller investigation altogether.
Saying he was speaking for himself and not for Trump, attorney John Dowd said in a statement emailed to NPR that “I pray that [Deputy Attorney General Rod] Rosenstein will follow the brilliant and courageous example of the FBI Office of Professional Responsibility and Attorney General Jeff Sessions and bring an end to alleged Russia Collusion investigation manufactured by McCabe’s boss James Comey based upon a fraudulent and corrupt Dossier.”
“Just end it on the merits in light of recent revelations,” Dowd explained, apparently alluding to the internal investigation that had ended McCabe’s FBI career just before he planned to retire.
The top Democrat in the Senate said Dowd’s view reflected the inclination of the president and his legal team to undermine the special counsel rather than to cooperate with Mueller’s investigation.
“The president, the administration, and his legal team must not take any steps to curtail, interfere with, or end the special counsel’s investigation or there will be severe consequences from both Democrats and Republicans,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement Saturday.
The top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee saw Dowd’s remarks as a call to action for his colleagues. “Every member of Congress, Republican and Democrat, needs to speak up in defense of the Special Counsel. Now,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., posted on Twitter.
Despite the pushback from leading Democrats in the Senate, Trump himself said Saturday night that the Mueller investigation should never have begun. “…[t]here was no collusion and there was no crime” Trump tweeted, adding that the Russia inquiry was a “WITCH HUNT!”
The Mueller probe should never have been started in that there was no collusion and there was no crime. It was based on fraudulent activities and a Fake Dossier paid for by Crooked Hillary and the DNC, and improperly used in FISA COURT for surveillance of my campaign. WITCH HUNT!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 18, 2018
Hearing the echo Dowd’s comments earlier in the in the day in Trump’s evening tweet, New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman observed: “Only two real options on Dowd’s initial comment this AM – Trump approved it and was happy with it, or Trump wanted him to go further, was unhappy he didn’t, and is doing so himself now.”
Alongside the response to Dowd, lawmakers, partisans, political observers and journalists responded to the firing throughout the day — with Trump leaving no doubt how he felt.
The occasion of McCabe’s firing was “a great day for the hard working men and women of the FBI – A great day for Democracy,” the president said in an early morning tweet. Trump also used the online posting to take a swipe at Comey, calling him “sanctimonious” and suggesting Comey “knew all about the lies and corruption going on at the highest levels of the FBI!”
A former director of the CIA under President Barack Obama slammed Trump after the president praised McCabe’s ouster. “[Y]ou will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history,” John Brennan posted on Twitter. “You may scapegoat Andy McCabe, but you will not destroy America…America will triumph over you.”
When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history. You may scapegoat Andy McCabe, but you will not destroy America…America will triumph over you. https://t.co/uKppoDbduj
— John O. Brennan (@JohnBrennan) March 17, 2018
“Gloat now, but you will be fired soon,” Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., a member of both the House intelligence committee and the House Judiciary Committee, told Trump. “There’s a storm gathering, Mr. President, and it’s going to wipe out you and your corrupt organization all the way down to the studs.”
Gloat now, but you will be fired soon. And it’s not going to be done cowardly, as you’ve done to so many who’ve served you. There’s a storm gathering, Mr. President, and it’s going to wipe out you and your corrupt organization all the way down to the studs. https://t.co/I0UlNAlwxI
— Rep. Eric Swalwell (@RepSwalwell) March 17, 2018
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said on Twitter that the firing was an attempt to undermine McCabe as a witness in the special counsel investigation and was “added evidence of obstruction of justice.”
And Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., a member of both the Senate intelligence committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee said the attorney general “needs to testify immediately before the Judiciary Committee” about McCabe’s firing. “He must explain the DOJ’s process and whether this is an attempt to target, punish or silence those investigating Russia and the Trump campaign.”
Jeff Sessions needs to testify immediately before the Judiciary Committee to answer questions on the firing of Andrew McCabe. He must explain the DOJ’s process and whether this is an attempt to target, punish or silence those investigating Russia and the Trump campaign.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) March 17, 2018
But Republican lawmakers said Saturday that McCabe’s termination was justified.
“I applaud Attorney General Jeff Sessions for taking action and firing former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe prior to his scheduled retirement,” Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said in a statement. The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee added, “More must be done to root out the problems at the FBI. I remain extremely troubled by the decisions made by the Bureau during the 2016 presidential election and the role senior FBI officials played in these questionable decisions and irregularities.”
Mr. McCabe’s firing, following an internal investigation and report by career civil servants at the FBI and DOJ, is important but more must be done to root out the problems at the FBI. https://t.co/qfpger6N9w
— Bob Goodlatte (@RepGoodlatte) March 17, 2018
And Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., another member of the House Judiciary Committee, said McCabe’s firing was “a rare example of someone being held accountable in Washington.”
As is his habit, the president took to Twitter on Saturday afternoon to once again deny that his campaign had colluded with Russia, citing a recently announced conclusion by the House intelligence committee. In a seeming reference to McCabe’s termination, the president added that “As many are now finding out, however, there was tremendous leaking, lying and corruption at the highest levels of the FBI, Justice & State.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the House intelligence committee’s top Democrat, quickly pointed out that the conclusion there had been no collusion was confined to the committee’s Republicans — who, Schiff told Trump, were “more interested in protecting you than learning the truth.”
Mr. President, the Committee reached no such conclusion — only Republicans. In fact, we did find evidence of collusion, despite GOP members being more interested in protecting you than learning the truth. When accusing others of lying, best not to misrepresent facts yourself. https://t.co/fIuKPGyEN1
— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) March 17, 2018
In another tweet Saturday afternoon, the president again took on the former FBI deputy director. “McCabe was caught, called out and fired,” Trump said, adding, “How many lies? How many leaks? Comey knew it all, and much more!”
The Fake News is beside themselves that McCabe was caught, called out and fired. How many hundreds of thousands of dollars was given to wife’s campaign by Crooked H friend, Terry M, who was also under investigation? How many lies? How many leaks? Comey knew it all, and much more!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 17, 2018
Comey responded within minutes: “Mr. President, the American people will hear my story very soon. And they can judge for themselves who is honorable and who is not.”
But Saturday may have included a bright side for McCabe.
In an effort to help McCabe complete the amount of employment necessary to qualify for his pension, Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., offered McCabe a job. “My offer of employment to Mr. McCabe is a legitimate offer to work on election security,” Pocan said in a press release.
The Democratic lawmaker added: “Finally, I’d like to thank Mr. McCabe for his years of service to the FBI and our country. He deserves the full retirement that he has been promised, not to have it taken away as a result of the President’s political games.”
NPR Justice correspondent Ryan Lucas contributed to this report.