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McCabe Stepping Down; Pressure Mounts on Rosenstein; FBI Agents Upset. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired January 29, 2018 - 13:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1:00 p.m. here in Washington, 6:00 a.m. in London, 8:00 p.m. in Jerusalem. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

We begin with breaking news here in Washington. The FBI deputy director, Andrew McCabe, is stepping down effective today.

CNN Crime and Justice Reporter Shimon Prokupecz is joining us now with details.

Shimon, we knew McCabe planned on leaving soon but this is a little more quick -- it's bit sooner than we had originally thought. What have you learned?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Yes, it certainly is, Wolf. And it comes, really, as a surprise to us all. We were not expecting this today.

And we have been reporting, and we have been told, that he at least planned to stay until March.

And what we're learning is that, at some point this morning, the FBI director, Christopher Wray, brought in his executive team. Told them that now former deputy director Andrew McCabe was leaving and that he would be leaving effective noon today. So, that's about an hour ago.

And that they have appointed a new acting deputy director. His name is Dave Bowdich.

So, Andrew McCabe is out. We're told that he left the building -- he -- around noon or so, when his retirement, sort of, took effect. He is no longer the acting deputy -- he's no longer the deputy director of the FBI -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We know that Andrew McCabe had been under a lot of fire from the White House, directly from the president. A lot of Republicans, they pointed to him as evidence of bias in the overall Russia probe.

Fill us in on that.

PROKUPECZ: Yes. So, he has certainly taken a lot of heat.

Look, his -- the heat that he's taken goes back to the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation.

There was a lot of concern by Republicans because of his wife. His wife was connected. She ran for state office in Virginia. She received the money -- the donations from the governor there, Terry McAuliffe, part of his group there and his connections to Hillary Clinton.

And, you know, recently, in the last several months, Republicans had raised a lot of concerns that Andrew McCabe was connected to the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation because of his wife.

These concerns were raised on the Hill. He had to go to the Hill and talk to -- talk to them about this. He was questioned about that by members of Congress.

So, all of that, certainly, he has taken heat for. You know, he's also taken a lot of heat from the president in tweets in direct communications with the deputy director.

A lot of stuff coming his way from a lot of Republicans, from the White House. And he's, sort of, been, kind of, the punching bag for the president against the FBI.

You know, also, his relationship to Peter Stroz and Lisa Page. These were the two people who were texting each other. And all of those texts pretty much have been revealed now that have caused a lot of concern for members of Congress.

So, all of this. You know, McCabe was very much aware of this. He knew that he was taking a lot of heat. And so, you know, he would try to say that he wasn't retiring because of all of this.

But everyone knew that, at some point, he was going to have to step down. And so, he had planned, really, to do it in March when he was eligible to retire.

BLITZER: Interesting.

And I just want to remind our viewers what the president tweeted back on September 23rd.

He tweeted this. How can FBI deputy director, Andrew McCabe, the man in charge, along with leaking James Comey, of the phony Hillary Clinton investigation, including her 33,000 illegally deleted e-mails, be given $700,000 for his wife's campaign by Clinton puppets during investigation?

That was a strong tweet from the president back on December 23rd.

He has also tweeted, FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe is racing the clock to retire with full benefits. Ninety days to go.

So, the president has been on the warpath against him for a while now, Shimon. And, today, Andrew McCabe is gone. Anything else you want to add?

PROKUPECZ: Yes. So -- and also, remember, there was news recently where there was a lot of -- the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, you now, reports that the attorney general was putting pressure on the FBI director to clean house. To get rid of the executive staff. Those that are connected to the former FBI director, James Comey.

We now know this will be the third person, essentially, on that executive team that was connected to Comey. That is now gone.

We had James Rybicki, who was Comey's chief of staff; James Baker, who was the general counsel to Comey; and now, Andrew McCabe. All out -- all out as part of the executive team.

[13:05:00] And, really, Wray now building his own team, which the president has wanted, which the attorney general has wanted. So, certainly, a shift here in the leadership at the FBI.

And just so you understand, the person who is going to be the acting deputy director right now, Dave Bowdich, is very well known in the FBI. He was the head of the Los Angeles office. He led the investigation during the San Bernardino shooting.

He's very well known to us in the media because he was the face of that story for the FBI. His extensive history.

So, it'll be interesting to see how he's received, certainly by people at the White House and the Department of Justice.

BLITZER: Yes. Christopher Wray, the new FBI director, relatively new, putting his own stamp on things right now.

Shimon, we'll get back to you.

I want to get the latest from the Trump administration right now and the breaking news that the FBI deputy director, Andrew McCabe, is stepping down.

Our White House -- Chief White House Correspondent Jim Acosta is joining us now from the White House briefing room.

I understand, within the next few minutes, there will be a briefing over there. But what's the reaction? What are you hearing from the White House?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we do expect the White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, to address this at the briefing. That's only natural.

The president was asked about this a few moments ago, during one of those pool sprays over here. He did not comment on this. We do understand, from sources talking to us, that he was notified about this earlier this morning.

But, Wolf, I just talked to a source familiar with this matter, who tells me that this was a mutual decision. That Andrew McCabe was tired of being criticized and undermined, as you just mentioned a few moments ago.

The president of the United States tweeted about him, in a pretty extraordinary way, last September.

But this was a mutual decision, in the sense that the White House was tired of Andrew McCabe as well. According to a source I spoke to, people in the Trump administration was not happy with Andrew McCabe.

And so, it seems, Wolf, that we do have another shoe that has dropped on this Russia matter. As you know -- and you've been talking about this a few moments ago with Shimon, the president not only fired the FBI director, James Comey, and wanted to fire the special counsel, Robert Mueller.

He has been consistently, it appears, putting pressure on just about every law enforcement and Justice Department official who has had a hand in this Russia investigation. And it now appears that Andrew McCabe stepping down is just the latest result of that -- Wolf.

BLITZER: How does this play into what a lot of the critics are pointing out was an effort by the president to undermine Robert Mueller's overall Russia investigation?

ACOSTA: Well, Wolf, obviously, that is at the heart of the Russia investigation and what's been going on in the special counsel's office. That there are concerns that the president has been obstructing justice ever since he came into office as president.

And that he has been leaning on and pressuring various Justice Department and FBI officials, essentially since he was sworn into office.

And we know, from the stories about Andrew McCabe, that the president, at one point, at least according to "The Washington post," had asked who he voted for and so on.

And so, this was -- this has been a consistent application to pressure from the president of the United States. He has, apparently, said, at times, that he wished he had more press -- he had more influence and leverage over what goes on inside the Justice Department and inside this investigation.

And so, to have the deputy director of the FBI step down after a very long career, I think, is just going to be something else that the Mueller investigation is going to want to look at.

And that is, in part, why this White House and the president's legal team is so concerned about the president sitting down with the Mueller team.

Because, obviously, he'll be under oath. It would -- it would, obviously, be an under oath type of situation.

And he's going to be asked about all these various levels of pressure that he has applied and that officials here at the White House have applied on the Justice Department and on the FBI throughout the investigation.

And that has the potential, as we know, with this president, who sometimes changes his story, changes his position on things.

That could, potentially, be legally precarious for them, because he could, obviously, get tripped up and say something that is officials, here at the White House, have said. And what they're obviously saying inside the Justice Department over at the FBI.

It's a pretty extraordinary situation. But, from what I understand from talking to this source familiar with the investigation, this was a mutual decision. That Andrew McCabe was tired of the undermining that he felt was going on here at the White House. Tired of being criticized. And that he was ready to go.

But, at the same time, Wolf, it's been stressed to me that this was a mutual decision. That they also felt like it was time for Andrew McCabe to go over here at the White House -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. All right, Jim Acosta, we're standing by.

Sarah Sanders will be holding her White House press briefing momentarily. We'll, of course, have live coverage, get official White House reaction to these late-breaking developments.

Joining us now, CNN Political Analyst Karoun Demirjian; congressional reporter for Politico, Rachael Bade; CNN's Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger; "The New York Times" reporter, Anna Goldman; and CNN Legal Analyst Laura Coates is joining us on the phone as well.

[13:10:00] So, Gloria, let's start with you. A dramatic development. We thought he was going to leave -- he was going to leave in March. It's not even February yet but he's gone.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. Nothing like this happens in a vacuum, Wolf. And our Justice Department team is reporting that his departure came as a surprise to even people inside the Justice Department. And one source said that it wasn't even in the plans as of Friday.

So, you have to wonder, you know, if you're going to -- if you're going to retire, take your pension, et cetera, you make it effective a date certain in the future. And it's, kind of, orderly and people are anticipating it.

I think this was a jolt. And it doesn't happen in a vacuum. You know that the president has been griping about him. He's also been griping about other people at the -- at the Justice Department. Rod Rosenstein comes to mind.

I mean, we did a story on Friday, saying that the president would like to have him removed as well. He's telling -- he's grousing about him internally.

And, perhaps, and this is just speculation, that it came to a certain point where maybe Chris Wray threw up his hands or Chris Wray and McCabe threw up their hands and said, all right, this is going to happen.

What we don't know is, if there was an order for him to leave, where it came from.

BLITZER: Yes. And, Rachael, it's probably a month or so earlier than we anticipated. But he was under enormous pressure to get out of there.

RACHAEL BADE, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, POLITICO: Yes. And you just have to look at what happened over the past couple of days. Republicans on the Hill have, sort of, been hitting, you know, T.V. channels, talking about these new texts that were -- came to light, from top -- two top FBI officials. Basically, suggesting that maybe they weren't going to go hard on then-candidate Hillary Clinton and the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation, because they were worried she, you know, was potentially going to be the boss.

Republicans have been trying to make this case that the FBI have had this anti-Trump bend. It's not, obviously, illegal or against the rule at all for FBI officials to have public opinions. But it only causes a problem if they actually act on those in a biased manner.

And, right now, Republicans are highlighting these texts. And I bet you McCabe wanted to get out of there before they, sort of, go on this (INAUDIBLE.)

BLITZER: And, Karoun, you can't, really, blame him for wanting to get out, given all the commotion over these past -- over the past year, at least.

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. And, I mean, he was probably going to go at some point between now and the day that which he would -- you know, age to the point to be able to collect his full pension. But exactly when wasn't certain because we're not under normal circumstance.

As long as he's with the FBI, he's both a target, so far as himself, you know, being targeted by the president.

And also, an excuse for the president to target the FBI for any other number of reasons that could relate to the texts, could relate to the memo, could relate to all of these different things surrounding the story about when McCabe's tenure actually comes to a close.

So, it's not a pure environment. And to identify exactly which element of it prompted the declaration of, you know, today is the day to go, we're not certain on that yet.

But it's certainly a place that's ripe for the reasons, I suppose, both to want to separate yourself from it but also, but also where -- everything step that -- everything that's happening.

You know, McCabe was tied to the FBI for a good, long time in a very senior role. And so, he's part of the story as long as he's still in the open.

BLITZER: Yes, you know, he was the number two, Laura. Laura Coates is joining us on the phone right now.

Laura, the number two FBI -- the deputy director of the FBI. There's, obviously, a tradition there that the new director, Christopher Wray, of the FBI, he would like to get his team in place. That's totally understandable.

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It is understandable to have yourself surrounded by team people and team players.

Remember, the FBI is comprised not just of political appointees, but also of career people. And the purpose of having the career-level investigators is because you want a continuation across presidential administration. You want the continuation. You want the pipeline of information and into some knowledge.

I can tell you, working with FBI agents, I don't want to reduce McCabe's decision to one that says he has delicate sensibilities (ph). I highly doubt that the key motivation for him, wanting to retire when it was time for him to retire was simply because he couldn't take it anymore. There's probably other reasons behind that.

But I do think that this will have much more weight in the court of public opinion than it would for Mueller's investigation, given that the Nunez memo may be surfacing soon.

I'm sure it'll be used as fodder to suggest that there was some nefarious reason to accelerate his quest toward retirement. But I suspect there's also benign reasons as well and keeping (ph) within his right to leave.

If the (INAUDIBLE) reporting is accurate, the mutual decisions, I think, will play to, kind of, a -- in a way that won't impact much of Mueller's investigation, but will certainly be one used by political parties as fodder.

BLITZER: I want to bring Adam Goldman of "The New York Times" into this conversation.

Adam, it's not just McCabe who's under a lot of fire. Robert Mueller under a lot of criticism as well. And Rod Rosenstein is the number two at the Justice Department, the Deputy Attorney General.

[13:15:02] You're doing reporting. And you've heard Gloria at CNN has done a lot of reporting on the pressure on him as well.

What are you learning?

ADAM GOLDMAN, REPORTER, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, it seems like the pressure on Rod Rosenstein is going to mount because Congressman Nunes has put together this three and a half page, four-page memo about, quote/unquote, FBI/DOJ surveillance abuses. And one of the things he highlights in the memo is Rod's role in renewing a FISA warrant in regards to Carter Page, a former campaign foreign policy adviser. So clearly that was put in the memo to damage Rod, if the memo becomes public.

BLITZER: And that's going to be considered when the House Intelligence Committee meets behind closed doors at 5:00 p.m. Eastern later today.

Stand by for the moment, Adam, because Shimon Prokupecz is getting more information on all the breaking news.

What are you learning, Shimon?


So there's a lot of questions about whether or not McCabe was forced out, did he step down on his own. And what we're leaning is that today, during the executive's meeting at the FBI, Andrew McCabe came in and told the executives that he would be leaving today. Today would be his last day. And we're told that he left as of noon.

Now this comes as a surprise to many people. And then what I'm also told, that certainly the initial -- initial reaction from folks in the field, these are the field agents and the field leaders at the field offices all across the country, is that people are pretty angry right now and that they are hearing about FBI leadership moves from the news. So this had not even been announced internally yet at the FBI before it was really announced on the news and before we started reporting it. So there is some concern now again among field leaders, among field agents, among the FBI staff as to what the hell is going on and who is really running the FBI.

The other issue here is that this is very similar fashion in that how people learned about the former FBI director, James Comey, when he was fired. So, again, a lot of concern in the field that the -- the current FBI director, Christopher Wray, had not even announced yet when people started learning of this through news accounts. I'm told that the FBI director is going to have a conference call with the leadership team, that may be ongoing now, where he's going to explain to them exactly what happened and how this went down today.

BLITZER: Yes. And, Shimon, let's -- we remind our viewers, Andrew McCabe was not a political appointee over at the FBI. He was a career FBI agent who worked his way up through the ranks, right?

PROKUPECZ: That's exactly right. He's a 20-year career agent. He ran the Washington field office here in Washington, D.C. He was promoted to deputy director under Comey. And he spent a lot of time on counterterrorism. He worked in New York at one point. So extent of history, he was a career guy.

And this was the issue here because the president and the attorney general, Sessions, could not just remove him from his position. They would need cause. They would need a reason to remove him. You know, they could put pressure, as much as they wanted, on the FBI director to do it. But in the end, because he's a career agent, not a political appointee, you would really need a good reason, cause, to remove him. And that's really essentially why Christopher Wray, the FBI director, could not remove him.

He also didn't want to remove him because he didn't want to create problems at the FBI when he came in. He wanted to keep the senior leadership together as he learned the agency, as he learned the bureau and the different cases that they're working on, the different operations, whatever else, and maybe just in generally how the bureau worked. So he kept a lot of the Comey -- the former Comey people on the team as he worked through this.

And now it seems that basically everyone who was attached, almost everyone who was directly attached to Comey has now either been placed somewhere else or has been removed or is gone from the bureau.

BLITZER: Shimon, stand by.

You know, Gloria, the pressure, not just on McCabe, now he's gone, but the pressure on Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general --


BLITZER: To leave, that is mounting as well.

BORGER: Look, we're just watching this incredible drama play out, to be honest. I mean people gather in the morning. They're told that McCabe is going to be gone. We know that the president of the United States has been after McCabe. We don't know whether this was an order for him to be removed. We know it was certainly disorderly in the way it occurred because he was going to just retire. So what is it that occurred that got Wray to say he's leaving as of noon today? We don't -- you know, we don't know the answer to that.

And was Wray pressured by the White House? Did Wray feel for some reason that perhaps this just wasn't worth the fight anymore? Did McCabe just decide, OK, I've got to retire rather than take this heat a little earlier than I -- than I thought? I mean we really need to do reporting here.

[13:20:16] But really I think if you step back, you can't sort of underestimate the shockwaves that Shimon was talking about that go through this agency. As Shimon pointed out, the Comey people are now gone. And we know that we have a president of the United States who's been very public about his dissatisfaction, not only with McCabe, but with Rosenstein. And you have to wonder whether there are going to be more dominoes here.

BLITZER: The president wanted a loyalty pledge from Andrew McCabe. He asked him who he voted for in the last presidential election.

RACHAEL BADE, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, "POLITICO": Just like he did with Jim Comey before firing him.

I think that Republicans centering -- or zeroing in on Rosenstein is particularly interesting in light of news that we got last week, that the president was talking about firing Mueller. Because, in reality, when Republicans are on TV, they say, oh, you don't need to worry about the president firing Mueller because guess whose job it is? It's Rosenstein's job. He's the one who actually has the power to get rid of the special counsel. So the fact that they are now going after this guy, potentially trying to push him out maybe, that's something we should all be watching very closely.

BLITZER: Yes, because the pressure is mounting on Rod Rosenstein as well.

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. Exactly. And there's more ire focused on him right now. We've seen this going -- ping-pong basically back and forth between is Sessions' the one who's neck is on the line, is Rosenstein the one whose neck is on the line? Because one of the -- either one of them has to be replaced probably in order to be able to actually issue some sort of firing order that would get rid of Mueller. Sessions recused himself, so it's on Rosenstein now. You replace him then -- with somebody who's more, you know, amenable to the idea. Maybe it's possible.

But Republicans are still saying, oh, they -- there's no way the president would actually do this, especially in this environment where we're, you know, heating up the probe, it's focusing on when is the president going to be talking to Mueller's team too. So, politically, it would be difficult, but it's not impossible if you just move one person, really, out of the way and replace them with somebody else.

And especially with everything else going on right now, I mean, the memo news, really, you can't lose sight of in all of this because it sets up what the bubbling up pressure is from his allies on Capitol Hill. And he's going to need that sort of -- that sort of support, I guess, to be able to do anything and not be censured for it.


Shimon, you're getting some more information. What are you learning?


So we're being told that in this meeting where Andrew McCabe announced that he was leaving today, that he made it clear that it was his decision. That it was his decision today that he would be leaving. That he would be retiring early and not staying till a date he had planned in March to leave the FBI.

He addressed the executive team this morning. And that is where we're told he stressed that it was his decision and that today would be his last day.

And certainly this came as a surprise to everyone in this meeting. This certainly has caught the FBI by surprise.

Look, I mean the FBI director had not even had an opportunity to tell the field offices, to tell people at the FBI, that this was happening. Everyone is learning this by watching us, by reading it, and that's what's going on now. And now the FBI director has to tell a pretty angry -- some angry FBI agents as to what is going on and why is it that they're learning this through media accounts and not directly from him.

BLITZER: Yes, that comes on the heels of the president apparently last June, according to a lot of reports, wanting to fire Robert Mueller, the special counsel.

And, Adam Goldman of "The New York Times" is still with us. Adam, if the president were to fire Mueller, he'd have to go to Rod

Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, who would actually do the firing unless he resigned in protest.

GOLDMAN: I mean that's correct. I mean he can't fire Mueller. I think -- I think Trump realizes the problem is no longer Sessions, his problem is Rod. And if he can perhaps get rid of Rod, maybe he can -- he can replace -- he can put somebody in the number two spot at DOJ that could effectively remove Mueller.

But it -- I have to tell you, it seems unlikely. We're at the end -- we're in the home stretch of this Russia investigation. You know, he -- it would be like cutting off his own leg if he did that. And it would not serve him well.

Can I just make a point about this McCabe retirement? Look, McCabe was going to retire March 18th. He was eligible to retire March 18th. He's leaving a few weeks early. Even a week ago, McCabe didn't even know if he was going to be able to last until March 18th. He's now going to go on terminal leave until -- until he is eligible to retire.

So this is widely expected. And getting rid of his chief of staff and Baker doesn't remove the problem for Trump. That seventh floor of the FBI are all Comey people. And many of the -- many of the executive associate directors who run the bureau on the seventh floor were put there by Comey. So -- and other key A.D. position. So I'm not so sure that -- I'm not so sure this getting rid of McCabe and Robicky (ph) and Baker, the former general counsel, actually solves the bureau's problem.

[13:25:18] BLITZER: Yes, because these are all career FBI officials -- FBI agents, all of whom have worked their way up, just like Andrew McCabe.

Everybody stand by. We're awaiting Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary. She's going to be walking through that door, making a statement presumably, answering a lot of questions today.

Our special coverage continues right after this.


[13:29:58] BLITZER: An update on the breaking news. The FBI deputy director, Andrew McCabe, stepping down effective immediately. The White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, getting ready to face questions on this any moment now. We'll have live coverage of the briefing once it begins.

Let's go to our senior congressional correspondent Manu Raju in the meantime.