Andrew McCabe, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation's No. 2 official whom President Donald Trump publicly criticized for alleged political bias and reportedly wanted fired, stepped down from the agency on Monday, weeks ahead of his retirement.
The move followed months of blistering criticism by Trump and his Republican allies that McCabe, 49, was an anti-Trump partisan. Recent reports said McCabe had been pressured to leave the bureau.
"Today’s news that FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe is stepping down from the bureau is overdue," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. "The only way to ensure the FBI remains the premier law enforcement agency in the world is to ensure that the leadership at the bureau holds the trust of the American people. This change in leadership at the FBI is a good first step in repairing the damage to their reputation."
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump "stands by his previous comments" about McCabe, but told reporters that the president "wasn't part of the decision-making process" that led to McCabe's early retirement.
"I can tell you none of this decision was made by anyone at the White House," Sanders said.
McCabe was thrust into controversy just days before the 2016 presidential election when it was disclosed that his wife, Jill McCabe, a Democratic candidate for a seat in the Virginia Senate in 2015, had taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from a political action committee controlled by a Hillary Clinton friend — then-Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe.
Trump, then the Republican presidential nominee, used the disclosure to question the FBI’s impartiality in investigating Clinton’s use of a private email server, before it declined to bring criminal charges against her.
At the time, the FBI said that McCabe had consulted bureau ethics officials and that he and FBI lawyers "implemented a system of recusal from all FBI investigative matters involving Virginia politics."
But the controversy continued to dog McCabe after Trump abruptly fired then-FBI director James Comey over the Russia investigation last May, a move that led Attorney General Jeff Sessions to elevate McCabe to acting director.
"Why didn't A.G. Sessions replace Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, a Comey friend who was in charge of Clinton investigation but got big dollars ($700,000) for his wife's political run from Hillary Clinton and her representatives. Drain the Swamp!" Trump tweeted in July.
McCabe led the agency until August when Christopher Wray, a former assistant attorney general, was sworn in as the new FBI director.
Trump's excoriation of McCabe remained unabated, even after it was reported in December that McCabe would retire in March when he became eligible for full pension benefits.
"FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe is racing the clock to retire with full benefits," Trump tweeted Dec. 23. "90 days to go?!!!"
Last week, the Axios news website reported that Sessions, urged by Trump, had pressured Wray to fire McCabe, but Wray threatened to resign if his deputy was dismissed.
Trump later denied Wray had threatened to resign under pressure, saying, "He's going to do a good job."
Comey, who appointed McCabe to the No. 2 position at the FBI two years ago, praised his former deputy for standing up to the agency's detractors.
“Special Agent Andrew McCabe stood tall over the last 8 months, when small people were trying to tear down an institution we all depend on,” Comey tweeted late Monday. “He served with distinction for two decades. I wish Andy well. I also wish continued strength for the rest of the FBI. America needs you.”
Trump and other Republicans say the FBI and Justice Department investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia is politically motivated.
The criticism has not been limited to McCabe. In recent weeks, critics have seized on reports that two FBI officials — Peter Strzok and Lisa Page — previously assigned to Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team, had exchanged anti-Trump text messages. Critics offered the texts as evidence that the Russia probe is politically tainted.
Thomas O'Connor, president of the FBI Agents Association, said last month that the criticism of top FBI officials "clearly trickles down to the agent on the street, and it trickles down to their kids in school."
In a statement emailed to VOA on Monday, O'Connor said the association thanks "Andrew McCabe for his service, and his support of the association and our charitable efforts."
David Gomez, a retired FBI special agent, said: "It is unfortunate that what should be a joyous occasion for McCabe has been marred by political partisanship. In my opinion, and I believe the timeline of his activity proves this point, McCabe did nothing wrong."