Several times throughout The Threat, former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe describes a scene in the Oval Office. People called in to meet with Donald Trump sit on small wooden chairs lined up in front of the Resolute desk, “like schoolboys who’d been called to the principal’s office.” Considering who’s positioned like this, from Chief of Staff to the Vice President, the belitting effect seems purposeful. Not to mention McCabe’s clinical but rather hilarious description of Trump’s gesturing and speech style during these meetings. I didn’t realize how much I needed an FBI agent’s serious but concerned breakdown of Trump’s mannerisms, but I did.
McCabe was infamously fired in March 2018, almost a year after taking over the role of acting FBI Director upon predecessor James Comey’s firing, and two days before he would retire and be able to collect his full pension. Trump’s hand seems obvious – it has his petty vindictiveness written all over it, and was delivered through one of his then minions, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, so he didn’t have to get his tiny hands dirty himself. It would be forgivable if McCabe had an axe to grind in telling his side of the story.
Yet he doesn’t. This isn’t a furiously scathing tell-all. It’s measured, intelligent, and quietly urgent. He remains a consummate professional, taking pride in his 20-year career as an FBI agent and his adherence to rules. He began by working Russian organized crime in New York City, and explains that halfway through his career, the FBI changed gears from organized crime, in “one of the more significant shifts of emphasis in its 110-year history.” After September 11, preventing acts of terrorism domestically and against Americans abroad became its primary focus.
This was especially interesting as McCabe acknowledges how little intelligence they actually had then, forcing them to go overboard to compensate. “The FBI didn’t know what we didn’t know about terrorism,” he explains. I remember reading in Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower that there were only eight Arabic speakers in the FBI on 9/11. This still seems incredible, and McCabe painstakingly emphasizes the significance of this monumental shift and the efforts it took.
He has a dry – I mean that in a good way – tone in relating facts and events. It must be reminiscent of 302s, the concise summary notes agents write up after interviews, as he explains. This tone was somewhat unusual because he doesn’t imbue scenes with emotions, except shock (writing with black humor at one point that he wishes there were more synonyms for “shock” to describe his feelings after various Trump-related interactions).
When a president is incapable of listening, or at least unwilling to listen, to any voice but his own, how can the other participants in that conversation go on doing their jobs?
The problem with some books out of or providing commentary on the Trump administration is that they’re quickly rendered obsolete. Even reading this a few months after its release, I wondered what might be outdated. But The Threat has a greater value regardless of what transpires after its depicted events. McCabe meticulously explains and illustrates why what Trump and his administration are doing is not only wrong and unconstitutional, but unprecedentedly so. This basic framework is something I’ll be keeping in mind.
And if you’re fascinated by the nitty gritty of counterterrorism work, McCabe delivers as best as can be expected given obvious confidentiality and secrecy. He describes some of the major cases the FBI was involved with, like uncovering the plot to bomb NYC subway stations and interrogating the so-called Underwear Bomber. Seeing how the FBI actually works in these delicate situations was revealing. I felt a new appreciation for the nuances and difficulties of this work, and he makes some interesting comparisons and differentiations with the CIA’s tactics.
A kind-of exciting supporting character is Robert Mueller: McCabe recognizes the enigmatic Mueller is an object of curiosity, and includes some relevant trivia gems. When Mueller informed McCabe that he’d run a new group proposed by Obama to “professionalize” interrogation tactics of suspected terrorists, he responded that he preferred working counterterrorism. Mueller said he’d rather be trying homicide cases, but here he was. Someone please make Robert Mueller an “I’d rather be trying homicide cases” bumper sticker.
And Mueller loves a good link chart. Delightfully, link charts aren’t just the stuff of Homeland or Charlie’s conspiracy meltdown. They really do use them. I don’t know why I love this fact so much but I do. I love it almost as much as learning that the FBI’s unofficial motto apparently is, like Tim Gunn’s, “make it work.” This is a book that’s as revealing in the little insights as it is on the big, serious stuff.
This is how government works. There’s no need to get histrionic and polarized and scream and yell. We all want the same thing. Sometimes we don’t all agree on how to get where we’re going, but if we just sit down and talk, we can figure it out.
McCabe repeats that he, like Comey, refused to pledge loyalty to Trump, because that’s not how it works. The entire book serves to underscore this is not normal – as we’ve been reminding ourselves since the election; since the campaign, really. Events do tend to seem less shocking the more that happens, he writes as much himself. But he helps immensely, in telling his story as he does, by steadily emphasizing that what Trump and his administration are doing, saying, and enacting is neither normal nor right. He does this with his ever-present mental rule book, but also by showing how badly it’s harming our country and the structures in place that are beyond the administration’s simplistic views. Reassuringly, he also conveys that the FBI remains steadfast in its mission, regardless of whatever abnormalities come from the White House. 4/5
How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump
by Andrew McCabe
published February 19, 2019 by St. Martin’s