MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Up for Grabs
A CONVERSATION WITH THE PRESIDENT—AND WHAT IT MEANT
Tuesday, May 9, 2017
Whenever James Comey, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was gone from the office for an extended period, my position as deputy director effectively cast me in the role of acting director. On this Tuesday morning in May, Jim was in the middle of a trip that would take him to field offices in Jacksonville and Los Angeles. I hustled through a challenging day, right up to the last block on the schedule, what we called the wrap meeting—a 5 P.M. gathering of the heads of each division. About twenty minutes later, my secretary pulled me out of that meeting and informed me that Attorney General Jeff Sessions wanted to talk to me. Immediately I thought there must be a problem—the attorney general did not call routinely. I asked, What line is he on? The secretary answered, He’s not on the phone, he wants to see you in person. That meant it wasn’t just a problem—something was really wrong.
I grabbed my coat, threw my notebook in a lock bag—a black bag with a key lock on the zipper for transporting classified documents—and left with my security detail, a longtime FBI agent. The walk from my office to the attorney general’s took less than ten minutes: down the elevator, through the courtyard, left onto Tenth Street, and across Pennsylvania Avenue. At the corner, I noticed a couple of news trucks, which was odd. There had been a press conference about a big criminal case earlier that day, but the news trucks should have been gone.
The attorney general’s office is a complex of several rooms, with a bedroom and shower upstairs. The attorney general even has his own dining room, across a hallway from the inner office, which, like most places in the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building, is elegantly appointed. The building itself—classical exterior, art deco interior—stands in contrast to the brutalist architecture of the FBI building, and the contrast captures something of the reality. The J. Edgar Hoover Building represents the instrumental aspects of justice, the Robert F. Kennedy building represents the ideal.
A secretary walked me to the door of the attorney general’s private office and we waited for another ten minutes or so, making small talk—awkward, pleasant—about Alabama. She, like Sessions, came from there. I walked into an oddly formal scene. Sessions was standing up, in front of his desk. He wore his suit coat. Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, and his chief of staff, James Crowell, stood there, too, both also wearing suit coats. The three of them looked at me with expressions of wariness or expectancy—it was hard to tell. For an instant it felt even like suspicion. Whatever was on their minds, their demeanor elevated my concern: What the hell was going on?
Lock bag in hand, I said, Good afternoon, and Sessions said, Thanks for coming over. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but we’ve had to fire the director of the FBI.
Time stopped for a moment. I should not have been shocked, but I was. One moment you are in an environment that you understand and know how to navigate. Then the lights turn off and turn back on in half a second, and you’re standing in a completely different place. What do you do now?
You go back to what you know. What I know, from years of experience interviewing people, is that in situations of massive reorientation, you never show concern or make hasty judgments. You accept the facts that have been disclosed. You keep your feelings about those facts to yourself. In the moment, you act like a professional.
I answered the attorney general: No, I had not heard that.
He said, So we’re going to need you to be the acting director for some period of time.
Yes, sir, I said, I’ll do that.
He said that an interim director might be appointed during the administration’s search for a new director, but for now they wanted me to run the FBI. He said, The FBI is a wonderful institution, and we’re going to need you to continue to run it effectively and make sure the mission is accomplished.
I said I would do exactly that. I would await his guidance, and I would do whatever it took to ensure that we continued moving forward. I would assist the new director, interim or permanent, in any way necessary to help that person get off to a good start. I remember using words that come from the FBI’s mission statement: I said we would carry on and protect the American people and uphold the Constitution.
He said, Thank you, and then asked, Do you have any questions?
Yes, I had questions. Starting with, Why did this happen? I also needed time to think. I answered, I do have questions, but I’m not prepared to ask them now. And the meeting was done, it seemed. A very short conversation.
As I was about to leave, I started reviewing all the things I would have to do. The first was to communicate with people in the Bureau. I said, I should probably send out some sort of an announcement to our workforce. Sessions and Rosenstein looked at each other, as if they hadn’t thought of that. Rosenstein said, We don’t want you to put out anything until we hear what the White House has to say. That was fine, I said, but I would need to say something internally. Rosenstein said, Don’t do anything until you hear from us, and do not say anything about this to anyone, not even to your wife, until we get back to you.
The news of Comey’s firing was on TV by the time I got back to the Hoover building, at about 6 P.M. So much for confidentiality. Listening to the news was how Comey found out about his dismissal—not in a phone call from the attorney general but from a CNN report that aired while he was speaking with FBI agents in Los Angeles. Everything about the decision to fire Comey had come across as improvised and slapdash. I walked back into the deputy director’s conference room. The people at the meeting I had left were still sitting there. Obviously they knew what had happened. They looked at me. The expression on their faces said, What do we do now?
I told them exactly what I had heard. I knew that people would be anxious, scared, or upset during this period, and I sought to confront those emotions with candor. If I kept people in the loop about what was happening, it would limit the amount of time they spent wondering and worrying about what was happening. At least on the margins.
The director’s secretary brought me an envelope for Jim Comey that had been delivered from the White House earlier that day. It had not been opened, and I opened it. Inside the envelope was Rod Rosenstein’s three-page memo that purported to explain the cause for Comey’s termination—his alleged mishandling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. The memo came with a letter of transmittal from the attorney general to the president, and the president’s letter to the director, firing him. I remember holding the letter from the president in my hand and reading that conspicuous line in the middle—“While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.” I wondered, Why would you put that in there? The answer would become clear as the weeks unfolded. The firing of Jim Comey gave new urgency to the FBI’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 elections—that interference was a fact, not a supposition—and into possible collusion by the Russians with the Trump campaign. Comey’s firing would lead directly to the appointment of a special counsel, Robert Mueller, to oversee that investigation.
In the conference room I told the team that we needed to figure out what to do in the next hour. After figuring that out, we would need to figure out what to do in the following hour. And then we would figure out the following twelve hours, and then the following twenty-four hours. That was my automatic response to the situation. It was a response that grew out of the cumulative experience of handling crises through my years in the Bureau: all the times I had overseen a course of action in situations with high stakes, where people’s emotions and responses were highly charged and volatile. So I handled this as I had handled all those other crises. I jumped in with my team to build a plan. We had to start by identifying the most important things to do.
The first task was communication. We set a mandatory SVTC that night—a secure video teleconference. This one would connect all of the Bureau’s SACs—the special agents in charge of our fifty-six field offices—so I could tell them this: There are a lot of things going through your heads right now. The absolute most important thing is that you keep your folks focused on their jobs and not on the firing of the director. Every one of you needs to get physically in front of every one of your employees first thing tomorrow morning and stress to them that we all need to stay the course. As we were sketching all this out, I got the message that the president wanted to see me at six thirty—in less than half an hour.
Whose Side Are You On?
I had been to the White House for meetings hundreds of times, and during my two decades of service to the FBI had met two presidents, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, in the course of official business. I had not yet met Donald J. Trump. Before I went over, and while I was in my office, Jim Comey called me from his cell phone. His voice was easy and unhurried as always, with a faintly Fawlty Towers inflection on the final vowel of his Hello! Classic Comey: Never let them see you sweat. The first thing I said to him was, What did you do now? He laughed. He said, I have no idea, but I must’ve really hosed something up.
The situation felt so crazy that the only correct response was to say, This is crazy. We’re spinning here, I told him, trying to figure this out. He answered with equanimity, as if nothing unusual had happened. He said, You’ll be fine, you will get through this. With an almost biblical intonation, he added, Have no worries.
Immediately upon becoming acting director, I was given a twenty-four-hour security detail—I was no longer allowed to drive anywhere by myself and could only ride around in the back of a fully armored black Suburban. At the White House, I bailed out of the Suburban at the little portico on the side of the West Wing, a door I’d passed through many times for meetings in the Situation Room. But I had never been inside the Oval Office.
A uniformed Secret Service officer made a phone call, and before long President Trump’s longtime bodyguard, Keith Schiller, came down to meet me. Schiller, a big guy from the Bronx, has a résumé that’s pretty well written in his buzz cut—Navy, New York Police Department, Trump Organization security director. Earlier that day, Schiller had been the one who had hand-delivered Comey’s termination letter to the Hoover building. He introduced himself and walked me to the door of the Oval Office, then handed me his business card. Hey, he said, if you ever need anything, give me a call. I thanked him, puzzled—what did he think I might need from him?—and took his card. I stood there for a second, and then they let me in.
The president was behind the massive Resolute desk, built from the timbers of a nineteenth-century British vessel that American sailors had rescued from the Arctic ice and returned to Britain. He stood up and came around to the side. We shook hands. The White House counsel, Don McGahn, was there, and the chief of staff at the time, Reince Priebus, and Vice President Mike Pence. None of them said a word. No one was sitting comfortably in couches or armchairs. A row of little wooden chairs was lined up in front of the president’s desk, and the three men were seated in the chairs like schoolboys who’d been called to the principal’s office. One chair was empty, and I took it.
The president was sitting on the front edge of his desk chair, leaning forward, with his arms in front of him on the desk. He is tall, and very large, and when he spoke he started to make blunt gestures with his hands—kinetic, coming at you. He started off by telling me, We fired the director, and we want you to be the acting director now. We had to fire him—and people are very happy about it. I think people are very happy that we finally got rid of him. I think there’s a lot of people in the FBI who are glad he’s gone. We had to do it because of all that—you know, the Clinton thing last summer and all his statements and everything, he really mishandled that. He had to go, because of those decisions he made, and for a lot of other reasons.
Copyright © 2019 by Andrew G. McCabe