The Memo: Trump and McCabe go to war

A new front opened in an old war Thursday as President TrumpDonald John TrumpMueller report findings could be a 'good day' for Trump, Dem senator says Trump officials heading to China for trade talks next week Showdown looms over Mueller report MORE and former acting FBI Director Andrew McCabeAndrew George McCabeThe wisdom of Trump's lawyers, and the accountability that must follow Mueller's report Rosenstein still working at DOJ despite plans to leave in mid-March Graham says he'll probe Rosenstein's 25th Amendment remarks MORE traded verbal blows about the feverish days following James ComeyJames Brien ComeyIf Mueller's report lacks indictments, collusion is a delusion Conservatives wage assault on Mueller report Hillicon Valley: Mueller delivers report, ending investigation | FEMA exposed info of 2.3M disaster survivors | Facebook asks judge to toss DC privacy lawsuit | Trump picks his first CTO | FCC settles lawsuit over net neutrality records MORE’s firing — and about FBI conduct more generally.

The conflict will strengthen the belief of Trump’s detractors that the president is unfit for office, even as his supporters will seize on McCabe’s comments to buttress their own allegations of anti-Trump bias at the intelligence agency.

The fuse has been lit by a forthcoming memoir from McCabe, “The Threat,” and an interview he has given to CBS’s “60 Minutes” to publicize it. 

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The journalist who conducted the interview, Scott Pelley, said on “CBS This Morning” Thursday that McCabe confirmed there had been discussions at the Justice Department about removing Trump under the 25th Amendment.

“The highest levels of American law enforcement were trying to figure out what to do with the president,” Pelley said, referring to the period after Comey’s firing in May 2017.

The full “60 Minutes” interview with McCabe will air on Sunday.

Meanwhile, The Atlantic published an except from McCabe’s book Thursday in which he called Trump “a person who cannot be trusted” and “a deliberate liar.”

Some observers argue that the controversy is inherently problematic for the president.

Former deputy assistant attorney general Harry Litman told The Hill, “to me it is a vivid return to the days of May 2017 ... how harrowing and unprecedented it was to encounter [a president] who was so lawless and so dishonest.”

But defenders of the president claimed that McCabe was proving their points for them. 

“He has contributed greatly to the literature of confession,” said Joe diGenova, a former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia and a staunch Trump backer. He said McCabe “actually admits to having participated in an [attempted] coup d’état.”

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Many of the details of the feverish period around Comey’s firing had already been reported, but McCabe’s willingness to step into the spotlight brought a predictably furious response from Trump.

“Disgraced FBI Acting Director Andrew McCabe pretends to be a ‘poor little Angel’ when in fact he was a big part of the Crooked Hillary Scandal & the Russia Hoax — a puppet for Leakin’ James Comey,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “I.G. report on McCabe was devastating.”

The report to which Trump was alluding, from Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, accused McCabe of lying at least four times — three of which were under oath — regarding the disclosure of sensitive information.

McCabe was fired by Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsMueller's investigation ends, but divisive political circus will continue Mueller delivers report to Justice, ending investigation Trump says 'people will not stand' for Mueller report MORE in March 2018, days before his planned retirement.

McCabe’s apparent confirmation that a use of the 25th Amendment was considered is explosive. 

The amendment provides for the replacement of the president by the vice president in the event that the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet asserts that the president “is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”

To Trump detractors, the consideration of such an action confirms that the president poses a threat to the norms of American public life; to his supporters, it is those who are considering using the amendment to overthrow an elected president who are the threat.

McCabe’s “60 Minutes” interview apparently leaves no doubt about the seriousness of the effort. 

According to Pelley, the scenario McCabe describes is one in which, “They were counting noses … They were speculating, ‘This person would be with us, that person would not be.’ ”

Rosenstein, who remains in office as deputy attorney general, disputes McCabe’s account, however.

"The Deputy Attorney General again rejects Mr. McCabe’s recitation of events as inaccurate and factually incorrect,” a spokesperson for the Department of Justice said.

The spokesperson added, “As the Deputy Attorney General previously has stated, based on his personal dealings with the President, there is no basis to invoke the 25th Amendment, nor was the DAG in a position to consider invoking the 25th Amendment.”

Among former law enforcement officials, the concern is that the mud-slinging between Trump and McCabe will erode public trust even further. 

Allegations about Trump’s willingness to meddle in the justice system and about FBI bias are both about to get yet another high-profile airing.

Frank Montoya Jr., a retired FBI special agent whose sympathies lie more with McCabe, told The Hill that the president “has dragged the institution through the mud in a way that I think has damaged its credibility among the general public.”

Montoya added that he was personally frustrated that such efforts could hurt not just the FBI but perceptions of “the rule of law.”

Another former FBI special agent, James Gagliano, cast blame on both sides, however.

Gagliano — who noted that he knew and liked McCabe earlier in his career — said that it was “unequivocally wrong” for the president to “punch down” at FBI officials. 

But, referring to the unflattering portrayals of Trump in books by McCabe and Comey, he added: “They have every right to write a book but it solidifies, for about half the country, their view that these people were incapable of being fair arbiters of justice.”

The Trump-McCabe battle seems set to rage anew for some time.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamDem senator: 'Appropriate' for Barr, Mueller to testify publicly about Russia probe Conservatives wage assault on Mueller report Graham expects 'thorough' briefing on Mueller report MORE (R-S.C.), a Trump ally, told reporters on Thursday that he wanted testimony from Rosenstein — under subpoena if necessary — to find out more about any consideration of deploying the 25th Amendment. 

"I imagine if the shoe were on the other foot, my Democratic colleagues would want to know about that conversation if it involved a Democrat. Absolutely, I want to hear from him at the appropriate time,” Graham said.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency. Morgan Chalfant and Olivia Beavers contributed.