After former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe was fired Friday, the chain of command was very clearly articulated by defenders of President Donald Trump. This was not Trump’s doing, they insisted, instead pointing to the internal FBI process that resulted in a recommendation to Attorney General Jeff Sessions for McCabe’s ouster.
Sessions’s statement about the decision was not terribly subtle. “After an extensive and fair investigation and according to Department of Justice procedure,” it began, “the Department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) provided its report on allegations of misconduct by Andrew McCabe to the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR). The FBI’s OPR then reviewed the report and underlying documents and issued a disciplinary proposal recommending the dismissal of Mr. McCabe.”
Sure, the decision was ultimately Sessions’s and, sure, Sessions has been under pressure from Trump for months, including in tweets, to take a hard line on McCabe. Oh: And, sure, McCabe’s termination was timed to block his receiving his full retirement pension, a punitive measure that Trump specifically advocated on social media. Trump, we are assured, had nothing to do with this firing at all.
Without seeing the inspector general’s report or the review by the OPR, it’s hard to judge the fact of McCabe’s firing. In the absence of those documents, it’s also hard to assume that there was no overlay of presidential politics on Session’s decision.
Especially when you consider that Trump appears not to have directly fired anybody since he has been president.
Trump firing people is a central part of why he’s president. That was the entire point of his TV show: He was a savvy, tough business guy who fired people. Two dozen times on the campaign trail, he evoked his catchphrase from TV as an argument for his candidacy. (Five days before the election: “If I were Hillary [Clinton], I would fire [campaign chairman John] Podesta so fast… . He must be a bad guy, I don’t know, but to say the things he said about her, she should look at him, say, ‘Podesta, you’re fired!’ “)
As president? Nah. An administration official told New York magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi in June, “He’s a conflict-avoider. He hates firing people.”
Let’s consider his record specifically. There have been dozens of people who’ve left the White House or his administration since he became president. Most of them resigned - some under pressure and some of their own volition.
There have been about a dozen who were just straight-up fired. And none of those people, it appears, were informed of their terminations by Trump.
In chronological order:
Deputy attorney general Sally Yates. Fired by Trump assistant Johnny DeStefano over email in January 2017.
U.S. attorney Preet Bharara. Fired by Yates’s replacement, Dana Boente, by phone in March 2017.
FBI director James B. Comey. A letter from Trump to Comey was delivered to the FBI headquarters in May - but Comey was in California. Comey learned he was fired from news broadcasts.
National security council director Rich Higgins. Fired by national security adviser H.R. McMaster’s deputy Ricky Waddell in July.
National security council senior director Derek Harvey. Fired by McMaster in July.
Communications director Anthony Scaramucci. Fired by Chief of Staff John F. Kelly in person last July.
Office of the Public Liaison communications director Omarosa Manigault Newman. Fired by Kelly in December.
Personal assistant John McEntee. It’s not clear who fired McEntee last week, but it’s likely that Kelly informed him of his termination.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Tillerson was told in a phone call with Kelly that Trump might tweet about him; Tillerson apparently learned about the firing itself when that tweet was published last week.
Tillerson spokesman Steve Goldstein. Fired shortly after Tillerson - by whom, it’s not clear - for contradicting the White House’s statement on Tillerson’s ouster.
McCabe. McCabe told CNN that he learned he was fired from news reports.
Well, sure, you may be thinking. The guy’s president. It’s not his job to personally fire everyone. Kelly fired all of those people because he’s chief of staff, and that’s part of his job.
The point, though, is that the line between the firings that Trump authorizes and the firings he demands and the firings that have nothing to do with him is very blurry. Kelly’s phone call to Tillerson was at Trump’s behest, and had Kelly informed Tillerson that he was fired in a phone call, there would be no question about who actually called for the termination.
McCabe’s firing depended on the process at the FBI, certainly, though the timing was up to Sessions. But even that process is not as clear-cut as it may seem. Consider Rob Porter, the former staff secretary for Trump, who resigned when it became known that he didn’t get security clearance because of abuse allegations from his former wives. Trump could have decided to grant Porter permanent clearance anyway and kept him in his job. The process wasn’t determinative - clearly, since Porter (and many others) remained in their positions despite having failed to get clearance approval.
As averse as Trump may be to personally firing people, he is not at all shy about suggesting that people should be fired. That’s the conundrum for those who want to argue that the McCabe firing had nothing to do with Trump’s political will: McCabe’s firing looks like other terminations for which Trump was clearly responsible, including Tillerson and Comey.
Put another way, Trump has made it very difficult for the default position to be that he wasn’t involved in the decision to fire McCabe on Friday.
Philip Bump is a columnist with The Washington Post.