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Declassified memos detail effort to get McCabe to step aside in Russia probe over conflict

Documents show wife's ties to Democrats raised concerns of conflicts of interest dating to 2016, including discussion with Mueller.

Updated: January 24, 2021 - 7:58pm

As Robert Mueller was ramping up his Russia collusion probe in spring 2017, then-acting Director Andrew McCabe was summoned to the Justice Department for a high-level Sunday morning meeting led by then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

McCabe showed up thinking it was a "coordination and logistics issues" meeting for the new special counsel probe, but soon he found he himself was to be the subject of discussion, according to newly declassified notes that McCabe recorded of the gathering.

Rosenstein wanted McCabe to recuse himself as FBI director from the Russia probe because McCabe's wife had run for office in 2015 in Virginia as a Democrat and had accepted financial help from longtime Hillary Clinton ally and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the notes show.

Rosenstein "stated that he had the highest regard for my integrity, and that he had read and agreed with the memorandum written by FBI Assistant Director Patrick Kelley addressing the issue of whether or not there were any conflict issues with my involvement in the Russia investigation," McCabe wrote in his May 22, 2017 memo.

"He stated that he did not believe I had a conflict with the Russia investigation," the notes continued. "Despite this, he then stated that he thought I should consider recusing myself from the investigation. He said he was not ordering me to recuse, but merely suggesting that I consider it in order to ensure the credibility of the investigation."

At the time, news reporters (including myself) had found a photo of McCabe wearing a campaign shirt supporting his wife. He was also listed in Virginia government documents as having attended a meeting with his wife and McAuliffe discussing financial support for the campaign. McCabe has always insisted he never did anything wrong.

You can read the records of the McCabes' March 2015 meeting with McAuliffe here.

With Mueller present at the meeting, Rosenstein "noted that there was a photograph on the internet of us wearing campaign t-shirts," according to McCabe's memos. "He stated that this potential 'credibility issue' could cause some people to complain about my involvement in the investigation."

McCabe countered he did not believe he had engaged in prohibited political activity and produced a memo from an FBI official stating he did not have a conflict of interest, but still Rosenstein persisted.

Mueller, the notes state, did not want to get involved in the matter, including reviewing the FBI memos. But he did raise another reason why McCabe might need to step aside from involvement in the Russia probe.

"SC Mueller stated that he would not weigh in on the recusal issue, but he wanted to let me know that he thought I would likely be a witness in the investigation," McCabe wrote. "I told the DAG that I did not believe he was in a position to order me, or anyone, to recuse from the Russia investigation, in light of his appointment of the Special Counsel. He repeated that he was not ordering me to recuse, but was rather suggesting that I consider it."

The typed notes of the closed-door drama described above are one of several newly declassified documents that show how much concern McCabe's ties to his wife's 2015 campaign and Democrats raised concerns of conflicts of interest as the FBI executive played key roles in two politically sensitive cases: the Russia probe and the Clinton classified email probe.

McCabe's official FBI text messages, recently produced to the Senate, detail a flurry of concerns that McCabe should recuse himself when the Clinton email case was reopened during the height of the fall 2016 presidential election.

Lisa Page, then a FBI lawyer working with McCabe when he was deputy director, wrote McCabe late on Oct. 28, 2016 to say that Comey's then-chief of staff, Jim Rybicki, was urging McCabe to step aside, one of a dozen or so text messages around the time showing the pressure to recuse.

"Rybicki just called to check in," Page texted McCabe late at night. "We got to talking about you. He very clearly 100% believes that you should be recused because of the perception. Just FYI. Let's talk this weekend."

McCabe wrote back, "OK. Good to know."

In the end, McCabe belatedly recused himself from the Clinton email case but never did so on Russia. The new emails show how much discomfort at high levels those decisions caused.

They also show that McCabe had his own connections to Virginia politicians as well as an occasional opinion that bordered on being anti-Trump.

For instance, a colleague texted McCabe in summer 2016 that Great Britain's Brexit vote to withdraw from the European Union — supported by then-candidate Donald Trump — was a "sad day for UK."

McCabe texted back: "I am stunned. Hope it doesn't predict [a] similar outcome here in November."

Similarly, when the questions of potential conflicts surrounding McCabe's wife's campaign intensified, GOP Virginia House Delegate David Ramadan texted McCabe's FBI cell phone with a supportive message.

"I heard the news... I'm sorry that the ugly head of today's politics is now after you... I hope this tin foil conspiracy crap will pass soon. Hang in there, and thank you for your continued service to our beloved country," Ramadan texted McCabe.

"Thanks very much for the thoughtful message," McCabe responded. "I got your voicemail earlier but it's been a crazy day it is unfortunate that the political climate has become so toxic."