Why you should care

Because he is a central figure in the battle for the FBI’s reputation.

The triathlete outpaced his critics long enough to reach the top of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But even as Andrew McCabe was tripped up in the final stretch of his career’s race, this week’s abrupt departure as deputy director of the FBI is not the end of his time in the public eye.

McCabe remains integral to the bubbling conviction on the right — trumpeted from the president’s Twitter account — that there is a federal law enforcement vendetta against Donald Trump, and there was an effort to shield Hillary Clinton from prosecution in 2016. To the left, he’s the latest victim of Trump’s political purge of the FBI who could provide valuable testimony in an obstruction of justice case.

Though his departure has been painted as a victory for the president, McCabe could represent a time bomb for Trump.

In this sense, he seems almost to resemble a fictional runner. A high school friend last year marveled to the newspaper in Jacksonville, Florida, where McCabe was a state track star, how McCabe’s investigative career had put him at history’s doorstep: the Boston Marathon bombing, Benghazi, the 2016 elections. “He’s been sort of like Forrest Gump,” Richard Fannin told The Florida Times-Union.

If so, it’s more by determination than happenstance. A graduate of Duke and Washington University School of Law, McCabe, 49, joined the FBI in 1996, getting his start investigating organized crime in New York. He rode a shift in how the bureau did business following the 9/11 attacks, with centralized power in headquarters rather than in the field offices. “As the counterintelligence and counterterrorism branches were built up, a shifting power structure inside the agency began to develop,” former FBI supervisory special agent James A. Gagliano wrote Tuesday in The Hill. “McCabe was on the leading edge of this movement. Right place, right time.”

He was also sharp, impressing higher-ups with thorough briefings as he assisted on high-profile cases and climbed through the ranks. McCabe shuttled between the Washington field office and bureau headquarters, sometimes commuting by bicycle from his home in the outer Virginia suburbs he shared with his pediatrician wife, Jill McCabe, and their two children.

In 2015 Jill McCabe, a political newcomer, ran for the state Senate as a Democrat. Then-governor Terry McAuliffe’s political action committee gave her bid nearly $500,000, as she was in one of several key races that determined control of the Senate. Jill McCabe lost. Three months later, Andrew McCabe was promoted to deputy director, where he supervised the probe of Clinton’s handling of classified information. In October 2016 The Wall Street Journal splashed the donation from McAuliffe — a longtime pal of the Clintons — on the front page, and just like that the McCabes became a Trump talking point.

“Andy” also came up in the much-scrutinized text messages of two former FBI investigators who were fired from the Russia investigation for alleged bias against Trump. The final straw clinching McCabe’s abrupt Monday announcement that he would go on leave ahead of an expected retirement in March appears to be a looming inspector general’s report into the FBI’s handling of the Clinton case. “It would be inappropriate for me to comment on specific aspects of the IG’s review right now,” FBI Director Christopher Wray wrote in a message to bureau employees obtained by NBC News discussing McCabe’s departure. “But I can assure you that I remain staunchly committed to doing this job, in every respect, ‘by the book.’ I will not be swayed by political or other pressure in my decision-making.” The Washington Post reported Tuesday that the inspector general is investigating why McCabe delayed action on the Clinton case at the height of the campaign.

Though his departure has been painted as a victory for the president, McCabe could represent a time bomb for Trump as their interactions leak to the press and become fodder for Special Counsel Robert Mueller. For example, shortly after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in May, he brought in McCabe, the new acting director, for an introductory Oval Office meeting. Trump reportedly asked McCabe who he voted for in the 2016 election. (He didn’t vote in the general election, but is reported to have cast a ballot in the Republican primary, potentially making the McCabes the Washington equivalent of a black rhino: a bipartisan couple.) NBC reported Monday that Trump berated McCabe for allowing Comey to return from Los Angeles to Washington on an FBI plane after he’d been fired, and then suggested McCabe ask his wife how it feels to be a loser. McCabe replied: “OK, sir.”

In McCabe’s infrequent public appearances as one of the nation’s most scrutinized law enforcement officials, he came off as dutiful and dry — with an occasional flash of self-deprecating wit. Testifying before Congress, he stood up for close ally Comey and the Bureau’s independence, and he refused to pass judgment on Trump when goaded by Democrats. “You look like a smart man,” Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) told the bespectacled law enforcer during a hearing in June. McCabe allowed himself a quick laugh and then: “Looks can be deceiving.”

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