WASHINGTON — Andrew McCabe abruptly stepped down Monday as the FBI’s deputy director after months of withering criticism from President Trump, telling friends he felt pressure from the head of the bureau to leave, according to two people close to McCabe.
Though McCabe had been widely expected to retire soon, his departure was nevertheless sudden.
As recently as last week, McCabe had told people he hoped to stay until he was eligible to retire in mid-March. Instead, he made his intentions known to colleagues Monday, a US official said, and will immediately go on leave.
In a recent conversation, Christopher Wray, the FBI director, raised concerns about a forthcoming inspector general report examining the actions of McCabe and other senior FBI officials during the 2016 presidential campaign, when the bureau was investigating both Hillary Clinton’s e-mail use and the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia.
In that discussion, according to one former law enforcement official close to McCabe, Wray suggested moving McCabe into another job, which would have been a demotion.
Instead, the former official said, McCabe chose to leave.
In a message to FBI employees Monday afternoon, Wray said he would not comment on “specific aspects” of the inspector general review.
He said that he and his deputy spoke, and that afterward McCabe said he planned to take leave immediately and retire March 18. Wray thanked McCabe for his service.
McCabe’s departure followed taunts from Trump on Twitter in recent months, but Wray wrote to bureau employees, “I will not be swayed by political or other pressure in my decision-making.”
The White House said Trump had nothing to do with McCabe’s exit. “The president wasn’t part of this decision-making process,” said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary.
His departure was not announced at the bureau, leaving agents to learn of it from news reports.
Wray, who was sworn in as director in August, named the bureau’s number three official, David L. Bowdich, as his acting deputy, according to the director’s note to the FBI.
McCabe had become a political lightning rod over the past year, with Trump and his Republican allies accusing him of leading a politically motivated investigation into Trump campaign aides and their ties to Russia.
McCabe, a graduate of Duke and of the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, joined the FBI in 1996 as an agent in the New York office and quickly climbed the bureau’s ranks. Under the previous FBI director, James Comey, it was clear McCabe was being groomed for the deputy’s job, the FBI’s second-highest position.
By appointing McCabe in 2016, Comey was seen as valuing intellect and management over experience in making cases.
McCabe’s ascent sometimes rankled the workaday agents who believed he did not pay his dues in the field, but McCabe’s supporters regarded him as a new model for the FBI, which had been transformed from a traditional law-and-order agency into a complicated intelligence-gathering operation.
He took on the role during one of the most tumultuous and politically charged periods in FBI history. McCabe was at the center of the inquiries into both Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server and the Trump campaign’s connections to Russian intelligence officers.
McCabe first drew Trump’s ire because his wife, Jill McCabe, ran for a state Senate seat in Virginia as a Democrat and accepted nearly $500,000 in contributions from the political organization of Governor Terry McAuliffe, a longtime friend of the Clintons.
McCabe did not become deputy director until after his wife was defeated, and records show that he disclosed his wife’s candidacy and sought advice from senior FBI officials. But critics, including some inside the bureau itself, said he should have recused himself. The FBI has said McCabe played no role in his wife’s campaign.
Trump and his allies have sought to use McCabe’s wife’s campaign as evidence that the Russia investigation was part of a Democratic-led effort to undermine his candidacy and presidency.
Before becoming deputy director in 2016, McCabe ran the FBI’s Washington field office and served as head of its national security branch. He worked on organized crime in New York and has been heavily involved in investigations into major crimes, including the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.
He was among the officials interviewed for the top FBI position, which ultimately went to Wray, a former Justice Department official said. The Washington Post reported last week that Trump asked McCabe whom he had voted for in the presidential election, but Trump has said he does not recall asking that question.
McCabe’s defenders inside and outside the FBI call him a thoughtful, intelligent, and committed career agent.
‘‘FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe is, and has been, a dedicated public servant who has served this country well,’’ former attorney general Eric Holder tweeted Monday. ‘‘Bogus attacks on the FBI and DOJ to distract attention from a legitimate criminal inquiry does long term, unnecessary damage to these foundations of our government.’’
Two days after Comey’s firing, McCabe appeared at a congressional hearing on worldwide intelligence threats and contradicted a White House assertion that Comey had lost the support of the FBI’s rank-and-file.
In one of the more dramatic exchanges of the day, he was asked whether the Trump-Russia investigation was a small matter in relation to the other work the FBI is conducting.
‘‘Sir,’’ he told Senator Angus King of Maine, ‘‘we consider it to be a highly significant investigation.’’