TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Andrew McCabe, the former acting director of the FBI, has written a new memoir that offers new insights into the investigations into Donald Trump. When McCabe served as deputy director of the FBI, he oversaw the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. After President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, Deputy Director McCabe became the agency's acting director. In that capacity, he opened two new investigations - a criminal investigation into whether Trump had committed obstruction of justice when he fired Comey, and a counterintelligence investigation into whether Trump was working with the Russians and posed a national security threat. McCabe's memoir is called "The Threat: How The FBI Protects America In The Age Of Terror And Trump."
The book covers his career at the FBI. He joined the agency in 1996 and spent his early career tracking Russian organized crime in the U.S. He went on to lead the FBI's counterterrorism division, the National Security Branch and the Washington field office. McCabe was fired by Attorney General Jeff Sessions last March after the FBI's inspector general concluded McCabe lacked candor when asked about his authorization of an FBI press officer and lawyer to speak to a Wall Street Journal reporter.
Andrew McCabe, welcome to FRESH AIR. We'll get to some of the things you write about in the book, but I want to ask you about an example of how the FBI thought it had to protect America from Trump. And this is something you don't mention in the book, at least, I don't think you do. I didn't see it. (Laughter). And maybe you weren't at liberty to. But last month, The New York Times broke the story that the FBI not only opened a criminal investigation of President Trump in the days after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, the FBI also opened a counterintelligence investigation to see if the American president, President Trump, was working as a Russian asset, and whether Trump posed a threat to America's national security and basically whether he was, wittingly or unwittingly, working as a Russian asset.
You opened those investigations. Why did you think a counterintelligence investigation was warranted?
ANDREW MCCABE: Yeah. I did open those investigations. And in fact, just to kind of clarify, there is, to my knowledge, only one investigation open. The way it works in the FBI is, when we have what's called, under our authority, the guidelines that we operate under from the attorney general, when we have an articulable, factual basis to believe that a crime may have been committed or that a threat to national security exists, we initiate an investigation. That's what we did in May of 2017 in the wake of the firing of Jim Comey. There were many - so it's one investigation.
In this case, under these circumstances, it has a bit of a dual purpose. We were concerned both with the fact that the president may have attempted to obstruct justice by firing the director of the FBI, and we were also concerned that if the president did in fact obstruct justice or attempted to impede or interfere with the FBI's investigation of Russian influence in the 2016 presidential campaign, why would he have done that? Right?
So that's where this - you know, the kind of germ of the national security threat comes from. So you can't really separate the two. They are kind of two sides of the same coin. As an administrative matter, they're handled in the same investigation. But that's the determination that we made, Terry. In those days, those kind of crazy days in May, and about the week after Jim Comey was fired. And I think it's important to know - it's kind of been overlooked in the conversation around this so far - this was not a decision that I made by myself or that the FBI came to, you know, on our own. This was the recommendation of the investigators who were already looking into the Russia case, the idea that Russia may have meddled in our election. They made the recommendation to me.
I authorized it, and I immediately let the Justice Department know at the highest level at the time, that of course, being the deputy attorney general. And then the two of us went to Congress and briefed the situation to the Gang of Eight, as we call it, the leadership from both sides and the leadership of the Intelligence Committee. So these were extraordinary steps. They were ones that we took only after, you know, great consideration and review. And I should say to you that in that process, no one objected. I explained the reasons I had for believing that we needed to move forward with these investigations. The deputy attorney general did not disagree. The leadership on the Hill did not disagree.
GROSS: Are both aspects of the investigation still being undertaken by the FBI? Both the counterintelligence aspect and the criminal aspect, now that Robert Mueller is doing his own investigation? When Mueller became special counsel, did the FBI stop the two aspects of its investigation into President Trump?
MCCABE: When Director Mueller became special counsel, the entire investigation, both aspects of it, were turned over to Director Mueller and his team. So I don't know what the current status of that investigation is, of course, 'cause I'm no longer in the government. But the entire thing was turned over to Director Mueller.
GROSS: What were the pros and cons for you, as the person who initiated those investigations and were overseeing them, when it was turned over to Mueller?
MCCABE: You know, it was really - the pros far outweigh the cons. I was absolutely convinced as we tried to navigate those days in May that the best result, not only for the FBI and for the Justice Department, but for the country, was to have a competent, experienced, independent special counsel come in and oversee this investigation. We had just come through an incredibly tough period with the Clinton email investigation, conducting that in-house, working that with prosecutors at the Justice Department under the confusion of whether or not political people at the Justice Department would remain involved. And I desperately wanted to avoid a similar situation with the Russia case.
GROSS: So since you feel comfortable, more comfortable talking about that investigation now that it's public, tell us, if you can, one of the red flags that you saw that had alerted you to the fact that the president might pose a national security threat to America.
MCCABE: Well, there were a number of things that we considered over the weeks leading up to Jim's firing. And then, of course, the firing itself really, I think, changed the way that we added up all those elements of kind of circumstantial evidence. The president was clearly dissatisfied with or angry about the existence of the Russia investigation. He had publicly attacked it. I know this seems quaint now because it's been going on for years. But at the time, to see the president publicly attacking and undermining the investigation was concerning to us because again, it raised the question, why would he engage in this? Why would he say these things?
The fact that he came to Jim Comey and asked Jim Comey to get rid of the investigation into Michael Flynn was greatly concerning to us. The fact that he insisted that the director publicly announce that he was not under investigation was also somewhat concerning to us. Then on - so that's kind of where we were before Jim Comey was fired. Then of course, he fires the director of the FBI, makes a series of odd statements about his decision to do so, culminating with the public announcement to Lester Holt in that now-infamous NBC interview where he said, yes, I was thinking of - I was thinking about Russia when I fired the director.
And then of course, he follows that with the comments to the Russians themselves about having fired the director and how that had released a lot of the pressure that was on him. All of those circumstances put us in a position where we couldn't any longer deny the fact that we were in possession of articulable facts that might indicate a national security threat could exist.
GROSS: In 1996, early in your career, you investigated Russian mobsters. This is when you started with the FBI in New York.
MCCABE: That's right.
GROSS: And you were a member of the Organized Crime Task Force, and you were investigating Russian organized crime as part of your work there. Your squad was one of the first to use RICO, the Racketeering and Corrupt Organization Act, to use that against a Russian organized crime group.
MCCABE: That's right.
GROSS: And you indicted a gang that had extorted furniture stores and restaurants and jewelry stores, and sold fake Medicaid cards and green cards, kidnapped businessmen, burned down buildings. It taught you about Russian criminals, Russian organized crime, the Russian kleptocracy. And I'm wondering if you recognize any of the names implicated in the Mueller investigation from your days in the '90s investigating organized crime and some of the oligarchs who were connected to it.
MCCABE: Sure. So I had, as you've summarized well, an incredible experience working on my squad in New York and later serving as the supervisor of that squad. Part of the work we did was, as you've described, focused on criminal activity - organized criminal activity in the Russian community in New York. But another big part of the work we did on the squad was to really try to watch and understand and hamper the efforts of major organized crime figures overseas, Russian organized crime figures overseas, who were, at that time, attempting to establish a foothold in the United States for their criminal activity or for their purportedly legitimate business activity. And that's something that concerned us greatly. Do I recognize some of the names we are currently talking about now? I absolutely do from that experience in New York.
GROSS: Let me give one example. One of the Russian organized crime people you investigated. You can pronounce his name for me.
GROSS: Tokhtakhunov - he had concocted a scheme to guarantee a gold medal for Russian pairs figure skaters in the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. The scheme worked. He was indicted by the Southern District of New York. Then a Russian oligarch pledged $200 million to get him - in other words, he bribed somebody $200 million to get this guy out of the Italian jail that he was in. Americans were trying to get this guy extradited. So Tokhtakhunov, the organized crime guy who - was released from jail after this bribe. He's been living openly in Russia. In 2013, he was indicted for money laundering in connection with an illegal gambling ring that operated out of Trump Tower. So this was in 2013 that the indictment was handed down. Several months after that, this guy was a VIP guest at Trump's Miss Universe contest in Moscow.
MCCABE: That's right.
GROSS: I'm wondering if any of that or any of the other Russian organized crime activities that you were looking at back in the '90s put Trump in your sights before he was a candidate.
MCCABE: Well, Terry, it wouldn't be appropriate for me to talk about people who may or may not have been targets of our investigative activity at that time. And just to be clear, our understanding of Tokhtakhunov and his desire to get out of jail we knew from information that came to us from other sources that a major Russian oligarch was prepared to spend as much as $200 million to get Tokhtakhunov out of jail and to ensure that he didn't find himself incarcerated in the United States. I can't say whether or not that actually happened, although Tokhtakhunov was released from the Italian jail at the end of a very long appeals process - and I would add released without prior notification to the United States, which was somewhat odd.
But it was an incredible education in not just Russian organized crime and the figures, some of whom are still significant to us today, and names like Tokhtakhunov's that we've heard again recently, but it was also a great experience and education in understanding how to build complex cases, really learning the FBI's enterprise theory of investigation. There's really no - I don't think - any better way to learn that than by investigating and working on the prosecutions of organized crime figures in New York.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Andrew McCabe, who had a long career in the FBI and served as acting director of the FBI. His new memoir is called "The Threat: How The FBI Protects America In The Age Of Terror And Trump." We're going to take a short break here, then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Andrew McCabe, the former acting director of the FBI. He's written a new memoir called "The Threat: How The FBI Protects America In The Age Of Terror And Trump." The Obama administration wanted to warn the public about possible Russian meddling in our election. And I think he also wanted to warn about possible connections to the Trump campaign. James Comey, who was then director of the FBI, didn't think that the FBI should sign onto that statement. Did you agree?
MCCABE: That was really tough - a tough set of circumstances to balance and a hard decision, I think, for the administration to make. It's one that we thought about long before. I think it was the DNI and others who came out and made that statement pretty late in the fall. Jim and I both believed weeks - many weeks earlier that it would have been appropriate to make a statement at that time. Unfortunately, you know, the process - the decision-making process is sometimes slow. And by the time the administration got around to proposing the statement that they ultimately went with, we felt like the time to do it had passed. So I agreed with Jim's assessment of those statements at that time.
GROSS: You know, a lot of people felt that there was something very asymmetrical about how that was handled because the FBI didn't come out about Russian interference in the election or possible connections to the Trump campaign. But at the same time, James Comey, in a public statement, accused Hillary Clinton of being - of extreme carelessness in how she handled her emails through a personal email account on a personal server while serving as secretary of state. And then days before the election, Comey made another statement saying that the investigation was continuing because of new Hillary emails that were found on Anthony Weiner's computer or server as part of the investigation into him because his wife, Huma Abedin, was a close aide of Hillary Clinton's. And her emails were on that server. Stop me if I'm getting anything wrong here.
MCCABE: No, you're spot on.
GROSS: So what were your perceptions of the asymmetry of that? - that Americans heard all about, you know, Hillary's emails. And that became just, like, a constant through the election. She was hammered by Republicans for that. She was hammered by Trump for that. Lock her up. Lock her up was the refrain, in addition to build the wall...
MCCABE: It still is.
GROSS: ...Of the Trump campaign and still is. And people want to - Lindsey Graham wants to reopen that investigation. But at the same time, Americans were kind of kept in the dark about Russian interference in the campaign and all of the true fake news that was out there.
MCCABE: Yeah, so there's a lot to unpack there. Just to address your - kind of your first question about the perceived imbalance and the way those things were handled, I certainly understand how people see it that way. But when you peel that back just a bit, you have to put it in the context within which we were working those issues.
So on the Clinton email case, that was a case that was very public before it ever even came to the FBI. The referral to the FBI from the intelligence community IG and the Department of State IG was public when we received it. The director and the attorney general acknowledged the case publicly early on. So it was hard to avoid the very public nature of that case. And I think it was that kind of - collective interest and fascination and constant questions in the media about what we were doing and when we would be done and what had the secretary done or not done put us in a position where it would've been almost impossible to conclude that case without making some sort of statement.
Now, that's an entirely different issue to - you could certainly take issue with the way that we decided to make that statement in July. And then you get to the question - the decision about making the additional statement in October. That was a decision that I did not agree with. It was one that Jim made for reasons he stated many times. I think it is impossible to look at that decision in any way other than to conclude that we had an unintentional but significant impact on the election.
GROSS: Did it eat at you to think about the asymmetry - the investigation into Russian meddling being kept secret and Hillary Clinton's emails being so public?
MCCABE: It didn't, and I'll tell you why. It goes back to one of the comments that you made at the beginning of our conversation. When you are initiating a counterintelligence investigation, you do that because of the information you have that indicates a threat might exist that you need to look into. But you don't know where that's going to go. This idea of sharing with the public the fact that there is or was such a case investigating the president of the United States - how do you do that? Do you - is it even possible for the FBI to reveal that? Should they reveal that? Should people know about it?
There are many very significant questions in that process for all those reasons. That's why the FBI - you know, counterintelligence is the work that the FBI does quietly behind the scenes without people knowing. It's typically based on, you know, classified material and things that can't be shared with the public. And you hope to be able to resolve those cases without anyone knowing they've been opened. If, in fact, you conclude there is no threat, there's no reason to proceed. So all those things were still in the balance when we initiated those first investigations into possible Russian involvement in the campaign.
GROSS: My guest is Andrew McCabe, former deputy director of the FBI, who became acting director after President Trump fired James Comey. McCabe's new memoir is called "The Threat: How The FBI Protects America In The Age Of Terror And Trump." After we take a short break, we'll talk about how Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, chair of the Senate judiciary committee, plans to investigate whether McCabe and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein were planning a bureaucratic coup to remove President Trump from office. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Andrew McCabe who became the acting director of the FBI after President Trump fired Director James Comey. After Comey's removal, McCabe opened two new investigations - a criminal investigation into whether Trump had committed obstruction of justice when he fired Comey and a counterintelligence investigation into whether the president posed a national security threat. McCabe was fired last March by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
You were fired from the FBI for, quote, "lack of candor" when you were interviewed by the inspector general's office. This pertained to authorizing two people from the FBI, one from the public information department and the other a lawyer, to speak with a Wall Street Journal reporter. So you think that the lack of candor issue was a pretense for firing you and that you were singled out for firing by President Trump. Why do you say that? Like, what do you think the president saw as your transgressions or the dangers that you posed to him?
MCCABE: Well, that's always been kind of a fascinating question to me. It was something that my wife and I wondered when he began his attacks on us in October of 2016. It's something I wondered again when the president spontaneously raised me with Director Comey on, I think, three occasions in their private meetings. It's something I wondered each time he tweeted out about - you know, that I was racing or he was - somebody was racing to my retirement.
So I don't know that I can answer that, but I will say that the president has a pretty well-known and well-established habit of attacking people who say things that he doesn't like. And he attempts to destroy, first, someone's credibility so that others won't listen to what they say or believe what they say. So the fact that that's exactly what he has done to me here really shouldn't have been a surprise. I think I probably should have seen this coming.
GROSS: One of the things Trump tweeted was, (reading) Andrew McCabe fired. A great day for the hardworking men and women of the FBI. A great day for democracy. Sanctimonious James Comey was his boss and made McCabe look like a choirboy. He knew all about the lies and corruption going on at the highest levels of the FBI.
More recently, Trump tweeted, (reading) disgraced FBI acting Director Andrew McCabe pretends to be a, quote, "poor little angel," unquote, when in fact he was a big part of the Crooked Hillary scandal and the Russia hoax, a puppet for Leakin' James Comey. IG report on McCabe was devastating, part of, quote, "insurance policy in case I won."
What was it like for you to be taunted by the president after being fired?
MCCABE: I mean, it's surreal. You know, just the idea that the president of the United States chooses to spend his time, you know, name-calling on Twitter is just in and of itself bizarre. I think that, you know, the tweet that he put out on the day - you know, claiming that my firing was a great day for the FBI, just for me shows how little this president understands the people and the mission of the FBI. You know, forget about the effect on me, personally. I'll be OK. But I can pretty - I'm pretty sure that the men and women of the FBI watching someone get fired 26 hours before they were able to retire and lose, you know, a major portion of your benefits and your pension - all these things you've worked on for your whole career - I'm pretty sure that the men and women of the FBI did not see that as a good thing or a great day.
And in fact, those messages have such a chilling impact on people's willingness to stand up and do the right thing, it's really - I think it's a horrible day, not just for the FBI, but a horrible day for the country because it is just taking us one step closer to the sort of, you know, the world of bullying and fear that this president prefers to function in.
GROSS: You write in your book that Rod Rosenstein, who, at the time was the acting attorney general, was shaken when he realized that the email that President Trump had asked him to write criticizing Comey for his handling of the Clinton email investigation, that memo was used by Trump to justify firing Comey. Rosenstein was shaken. He was shocked. He felt like he'd been misled by the president. We've since learned, and you've confirmed, that Rosenstein brought up the idea of trying to enlist cabinet members to use the 25th Amendment to get Trump out of office, or possibly wearing a wire to get Trump on tape.
Rosenstein denied that he took any action on either of those things, and he said that he sees nothing that would be a basis for invoking the 25th Amendment. What did you think of the idea of trying to get cabinet members to invoke the 25th Amendment, or of somebody wearing a wire?
MCCABE: Yeah. I didn't think much of it, to be perfectly honest. It was - this was not a - there was no effort underway to actually take this action, not anything that I'm aware of. It was simply an offhanded comment that the deputy attorney general made during a time of incredible stress. I think it's relevant simply because it sheds some light on exactly how hard those days were and what kind of pressure we were all operating under. But at no time did I ever think that the deputy attorney general was actually doing that, taking action. There were no meetings about it that I'm aware of. There was no really legitimate discussion around it. It was simply a comment that he made in front of me and other people.
With respect to Rod's comments about wearing a wire, that was something that Rod raised with me over the course of several meetings, some meetings including other people. So there were other people around who had to have heard that. It was not a comment that was made in jest. It was not made sarcastically. It was, essentially, an offer he made. I told him I would consider it and I would get back to him if it was something that we wanted to do.
I thought it was a horrible idea. I actually discussed it with my lawyers. They agreed that it was not something we were interested in doing. And so I never followed up with him on it. So I saw the Justice Department's comments yesterday. It is true that the deputy attorney general never authorized the FBI to record the president. It is also true that the FBI never asked the deputy attorney general for that authorization.
GROSS: So members of the right-wing media, having learned that Rod Rosenstein just brought up the idea of trying to invoke the 25th Amendment, or wearing a wire, the right-wing, members of the right-wing media have been describing this as plotting a coup. Is that how you see it?
MCCABE: No. Not at all. Not at all. That's, I think, a gross exaggeration of what happened. You know, Rod made the comment he did under intense pressure. It wasn't even discussed any more fully than that. There was never, to my knowledge, any meetings or gatherings where it was discussed, or any intention to move that forward. So to describe it as anything more than an offhanded comment exchanged between people who were experiencing an incredibly stressful event is just not accurate.
GROSS: Well, it wasn't that offhand, in the sense you actually consulted your lawyers about the idea of the wire.
MCCABE: Well, yeah. Not about the idea of the 25th Amendment...
MCCABE: ...Of course, that not being something that we would engage in. And I did mention the idea of the wire to our attorneys. Like, I would consult with my attorneys about, you know, challenging investigative decisions all the time. This was one that I was pretty confident that was not something that we were going to do. And they agreed with that assessment.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Andrew McCabe, who had a long career in the FBI. When James Comey was fired as director, Andrew McCabe became acting director. Now he's written a new memoir, called, "The Threat: How The FBI Protects America In The Age Of Terror And Trump." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Andrew McCabe, who's written a new memoir called "The Threat: How The FBI Protects America In The Age Of Terror And Trump." And he had a long career in the FBI. And when James Comey was fired as director of the agency, Andrew McCabe became the acting director.
Senator Lindsey Graham, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said on Sunday that he will hold a hearing and investigate what really happened in the discussions between you and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, in which you say Rosenstein brought up the possibility of wearing a wire when he spoke with President Trump and brought up invoking the 25th Amendment, the amendment that says - that lays out how a president can be removed from office if he's incapable of performing his duties. Would you go if asked to testify or would you wait for a subpoena?
MCCABE: You know, I don't know the answer to that. I will cooperate with the committee in whatever way I can. I have a number of my own kind of perilous legal issues that are still hanging out there. And so these are things - once we are contacted by the committee, depending on how they contact us and what they ask for, I'll talk about those things with my attorneys. But I will take every step I possibly can to sit down with the committee and tell them what I know. But I will say this, Terry. If all they are interested in is that - Rod Rosenstein's mention of the 25th Amendment or Rod Rosenstein's offer to wear a wire - if that's all they're interested in, it'll be a very short and uneventful hearing.
I invite the committee or any other committee on the Hill to look beyond that, to ask themselves, why is it two of the highest-ranking officials in the Department of Justice and the FBI in May of 2017 had to even consider the fact that the president of the United States might pose a national security risk to this country? I think that would be a much broader hearing and a much more interesting and important one.
GROSS: Senator Graham wants to investigate whether your conversations with Rod Rosenstein about Rosenstein possibly using a wire or Rosenstein invoking - you know, trying to see whether the 25th Amendment could be evoked - invoked. And you say that was a casual conversation. But Lindsey Graham wants to investigate whether this represents that the FBI was plotting, quote, "an attempted bureaucratic coup" to remove the President from office. And, like, coup is the word that is spreading now on right-wing media. And the president is using it, too. The president used the word treasonous. He tweeted, there's a lot of explaining to do to the millions of people who had just elected a president they really liked and who has done a great job for them with the military, vets, economy and so much more. This was the illegal and treasonous insurance policy in full action. He's referring to you there.
And then Donald Trump retweeted Sean Hannity, who tweeted, the biggest abuse of power and corruption scandal in our history, and it's much worse than we thought. Andrew McCabe admitted to plotting a coup (government overthrow) when he was serving in the FBI before he was fired for lying and leaking. The president also retweeted someone from "Fox & Friends," Dan Bongino. Am I saying his name correctly?
MCCABE: I don't know.
GROSS: OK. So the tweet is, this was an illegal coup attempt on the president of the United States. So the fact that the right-wing media is using the word coup, that the president is using the word treasonous and retweeting tweets that say coup and that Lindsey Graham used the word bureaucratic coup, how do you interpret that?
MCCABE: Well, Terry, the fact that the president uses a word or that right-wing media uses a word or that Sean Hannity uses the same word simply does not make it true. I mean, we know that many of the words that all three of those folks use are frequently false. And in my own experience, have proven to be slanderous and incredibly hurtful. But, nevertheless, I will answer it directly. To characterize that - those comments by Rod Rosenstein as a coup is just utterly ridiculous.
GROSS: So you say it's ridiculous. But the president is basically saying that you, the former acting director of the FBI, committed an act of treason and, you know, that you were trying to overthrow the government, I mean, by retweeting stuff about coups. So do you see that as an attempt to undermine the American public's belief in the credibility of our intelligence agencies by...
MCCABE: Of course it is.
GROSS: ...Trying to undermine you and Rosenstein as plotting a coup?
MCCABE: Of course it is. And it's not new, right? This is - the president has a long history of doing this. His supporters on the Hill and in right-wing media help him in that effort every day. The president goes after people who say things that he doesn't like. And he goes after them by attacking their credibility. You know, it is my opinion that my firing from the FBI was a part of that entire plan. The president knows that I am someone who will stand up and tell the truth about what I saw. And I'll explain the reasons behind what I've done. And that's what I've done in this book. Those are all unhappy things for him to hear. So he has no choice but to come after me personally and to make the kind of absurd and totally outlandish lies that he's made in these tweets and, quite frankly, that he's been saying about me since October of 2016.
I have endured these comments about myself, about my wife, about her efforts to help her community by running for office. It's absolutely horrendous. And it's part of a much bigger plan and strategy and - on the part of the president of the United States, not just to attack me but to undermine anyone in intelligence or law enforcement that causes him to have to face some very painful and uncomfortable facts. It's wrong. It's undermining the work of our law enforcement and intelligence officers every day. And it should stop.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Andrew McCabe, who had a long career in the FBI. When James Comey was fired as director, Andrew McCabe became acting director. Now he's written a new memoir called "The Threat: How The FBI Protects America In The Age Of Terror And Trump." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Andrew McCabe, who's written a new memoir called "The Threat: How The FBI Protects America In The Age Of Terror And Trump." And he had a long career in the FBI. And when James Comey was fired as director, Andrew McCabe became acting director.
Another thing you write about in the book, you participated in some of the presidential daily briefings that President Trump received. These are the briefings at which he gets all the intelligence reports that he needs to start the day. Give us a sense of what those briefings were like, how he responded, questions he asked, or things that he understood or things he didn't understand and how that affected the actions he took or didn't take.
MCCABE: Yeah. So let me just be clear. So the president's daily brief - or, as we refer to it, the PDB - is something that we looked at every day. And then, three times a week, we would gather with the leadership from the Department of Justice, so the attorney general, the deputy attorney general, some other folks who do national security work in the department. And we would go over the intelligence products in the PDB and, you know, other matters.
The president also received the PDB on those days, presumably. I was not present for the president's review of the PDB on a daily basis. My knowledge of the president's consumption of intelligence really came from more targeted or directed briefings that we prepared and delivered to the White House, so for things like homeland security sessions and briefings on particular issues, like the one I relate in the book concerning the Russian dachas.
It was a challenge. It's always a little bit of an adjustment as you have a new administration. Understanding how the president and his senior staff prefer to receive intelligence is a - there's always a period of kind of adapting to that new style, those new preferences. But what we saw with this administration to me, from my perspective, was very different.
The president was - it was challenging to get his attention on intelligence during these briefings. It was reported to me as challenging to keep his - you know, to keep him focused on the issue at hand. He's a - as I said earlier, he's a person who likes to kind of jump from topic to topic and often winds up discussing things that were, you know, not on the table or not on the agenda.
GROSS: Did you feel like he comprehended what he was being told about the intelligence?
MCCABE: Well, certainly not in the instance that I relate in the book.
GROSS: Tell us about that story.
MCCABE: Sure. So this had to do with the infamous Russian dachas, which were two properties, one in New York, one on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, that were maintained by the government of Russia and purportedly for the purpose of giving their diplomats some place to - you know, to relax and kind of go on vacation. It was our strong feeling in the FBI that the Russians were using those locations for intelligence purposes, which is a violation of what they're supposed to be doing there. Both were kind of closed and reclaimed by the United States under the Obama administration.
And during the Trump administration, the Trump administration needed to decide whether they would continue to close those facilities or they would turn them back over to the Russians. So we felt very strongly that they should remain closed and that the intelligence activity that had been going on there shouldn't be permitted. So that was the purpose of the brief that one of my briefers and one of my senior executives from the counterintelligence division went down to brief the president on. And they did not really get to discuss the matter with him in any substantive way.
MCCABE: Because he immediately launched into, you know, a monologue about totally unrelated issues. He was very focused on North Korea and the fact that the North Koreans had recently test-launched several missiles. This is a topic that was concerning everyone at the time. And he shared with the group that he did not believe that the North Koreans had actually launched any missiles. He did not believe that they had the capacity to launch missiles. And he explained that he didn't believe that because he had been told that by the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin.
GROSS: And did that answer concern you?
MCCABE: It certainly did. I think it concerned the people in the room at the time. I was told that the primary briefer from the PDB explained to the president that that was not consistent with any of the intelligence that we had on the matter. And the president insisted that, well, he believed Putin and therefore not our own intelligence. So that's a very troubling thing to hear as a senior intelligence officer and, you know, as one of the people responsible for getting information to the president and his staff for the purpose of making the decisions that they need to make. And so when you are doing that in an environment where the president has made it pretty clear that he doesn't trust the intelligence agencies - he doesn't trust the process, that is a very hard problem to fix.
GROSS: So in your book, you describe how when you joined the FBI in 1996, you had to learn how to buckle your seat belt different from the way that normal people do, so if there was a lethal situation, you could escape from the car. Can you describe the FBI way of buckling a seat belt?
MCCABE: Sure. So it's really kind of an example of how, you know, crossing over into this new life - a life of purpose, a life of thinking of others before thinking of yourself - it's - you start to look at every little detail of what you do very differently. And, you know, I think, you know, being taught how to remove your seat belt - like, not something that you would think about on any given day.
But one of our firearms instructors told us, you never reach across your stomach and grab the seat belt to unbuckle it in the same way that every other person does. Instead, what you do is raise your left hand up, put the back of your hand against the inside of the belt as it crosses your chest and then you run your hand down the inside of that belt until you get to the buckle, unclasp the buckle and push the belt away with the back of your left hand.
It seems a little bit elaborate and a little bit maybe crazy. But the reason is to keep that left arm outside the triangle of the seat belt because if - God forbid - you find yourself in a lethal moment when people are firing - you know, shooting at you from outside a car, and you have to get out of that car to save your life, the last thing you want to do is be stuck in your seat belt.
GROSS: I see. So it's an FBI way of unbuckling the seat belt.
MCCABE: That's right. That's right. Yeah. You need to get out of there quick, and you don't want to get stuck.
GROSS: Do you still buckle it that way?
MCCABE: I do. I do. Old habits are hard to break thankfully. And it's something that I do to this day. Although now when I do it, I just smile about it and assume that people won't be shooting at me when I get to where I'm going.
GROSS: Andrew McCabe, thank you so much for talking with us.
MCCABE: Well, thank you, Terry. It's been a pleasure.
GROSS: Andrew McCabe's new memoir is titled "The Threat: How The FBI Protects America In The Age Of Terror And Trump." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SURVIVING R. KELLY")
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: When someone like R. Kelly gets in trouble, there's this knee-jerk instinct to protect him.
GROSS: The documentary series "Surviving R. Kelly" asked why it took so long for the music industry and fans to take seriously allegations that R. Kelly sexually, physically and emotionally abused numerous young women. Several of those women are interviewed in the series. We'll talk with the executive producer Dream Hampton. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF TONY WILLIAMS' "CITY OF LIGHT")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF TONY WILLIAMS' "CITY OF LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.