If Donald Trump had gotten his way, according to Axios’ Jonathan Swan, Jeff Sessions would have had to choose the third FBI director in less than a year. Trump has put pressure on his attorney general to get Christopher Wray to fire Andrew McCabe, the deputy director who has become a lightning rod for criticism in the wake of FBI probes into Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Wray, who took office after the controversial firing of predecessor James Comey, threatened to resign if McCabe was removed — which convinced Sessions and White House counsel Don McGahn to back off:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions — at the public urging of President Donald Trump — has been pressuring FBI Director Christopher Wray to fire Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, but Wray threatened to resign if McCabe was removed, according to three sources with direct knowledge.

  • Wray’s resignation under those circumstances would have created a media firestorm. The White House — understandably gun-shy after the Comey debacle — didn’t want that scene, so McCabe remains.
  • Sessions told White House Counsel Don McGahn about how upset Wray was about the pressure on him to fire McCabe, and McGahn told Sessions this issue wasn’t worth losing the FBI Director over, according to a source familiar with the situation.
  • Why it matters: Trump started his presidency by pressuring one FBI Director (before canning him), and then began pressuring another (this time wanting his deputy canned). This much meddling with the FBI for this long is not normal.

That’s true enough, but these aren’t exactly normal times at the bureau either. The appearance of politicization at the FBI predates Trump, and McCabe is one of the loci of that problem. While McCabe had oversight on the Hillary Clinton probe, his wife ran for political office with the support of longtime Clinton crony Terry McAuliffe, at the time governor of Virginia. Her campaign got almost $500,000 from a McAuliffe-aligned super-PAC and another $207,000 from the state Democratic Party, over which McAuliffe exerted significant leadership if not control. That set up an obvious conflict of interest which should have resulted in McCabe either being reassigned away from the Clinton probe or taking a leave of absence.

As we are discovering now, the politicization at the FBI went beyond appearances, too. The text messages between two FBI agents talking about a “secret society” of anti-Trump agents and the establishment of an “insurance policy” against his election are evidence of direct politicization. McCabe was in an oversight position here too. If Trump wants him gone, it’s not just a tantrum, even if under normal circumstances it would be considered “meddling.”

All of this seems as though it’s old news, though. Trump was giving McCabe public beatings in July of last year, as Wray was taking over, not recently. McCabe has decided to retire as soon as he’s eligible, so he can’t really be the point of this walk down Memory Lane. Why would this leak out of the White House now? Swan has a good track record on getting stories out of the West Wing in the Trump administration, but this looks like a story someone wants told. Perhaps it’s to establish that Wray is his own man, which could mean that Wray or someone on his team leaked it — but Wray wouldn’t have been privy to McGahn’s advice, at least not directly. Team Trump might want this out in order to establish Wray’s credibility and independence, two qualities that will be needed for the Trump administration if Wray decides to push harder on the FBI’s performance in 2015-16 on the Hillary and Trump investigations.