Responsible for overseeing investigations of terrorists, spies and corrupt officials, as well as the sensitive inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, the longtime FBI agent toils mostly behind the scenes, and he likes it that way.
“My focus is on the inside [of the FBI] and all the work we do that is not talked about in the newspaper, on CNN, on the Hill,” McCabe, 48, said in his first interview since he was named FBI Director James B. Comey’s second-in-command in January.
Comey is "totally focused" on high-profile issues like the recent legal fight with Apple over an encrypted iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino killers and questions from members of Congress, McCabe said.
"My focus is on the stuff we have done for 100 years and do every day that people never hear about,” he added.
The deputy director's job always has been both influential and grueling. It has become more so under Comey, who took over the FBI in 2013 and is considered less detail-oriented than his predecessor, Robert F. Mueller.
On any given day, McCabe gets briefings on terrorist threats, major criminal investigations, personnel matters and even plans to build a new FBI headquarters. His choices often come down to a simple calculus: making the least worst decision.
“By the time a problem gets to his office -- my old office -- many people have tried to solve a problem," said Mark Giuliano, the former deputy director. "Really, most of the hardest issues for the organization both externally and internally come to that office.”
McCabe, who joined the bureau in 1996, said his top priority is finding and stopping terrorists who are inspired by Islamic State or other extremist groups.
“That is the scariest thing for me right now,” he said. “It’s the broadening and intensity of the terrorism threat, the crowd-sourcing of terrorism, the flood of propaganda, the enormous number of folks who have become swept up in that propaganda.”
He also wrestles with how to keep tabs on suspected terrorists who communicate with encrypted apps and emails, a growing problem that the FBI calls "going dark."
He echoed Comey's recent call for a national conversation about the trade-off between national security and privacy of electronic communications and devices.
Comey didn’t have to look far for a replacement when Giuliano retired. McCabe was working down the hall as the FBI's third-ranking official, running the bureau's administrative functions.
Before that, McCabe had held several top counter-terrorism and national security posts and had run the Washington field office, the second biggest in the country.
In 2009, he was tapped to launch a new Obama administration program called the High-Value Interrogation Group. The newly elected president had banned waterboarding and other harsh interrogation tactics that the CIA had used against interrogation suspects overseas, and was trying to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Known as the HIG, the program McCabe started supports research into effective interrogation practices and has an elite group of FBI agents and intelligence officers who are dispatched to question key suspects.
Trim and tall with thinning gray hair, McCabe takes style cues from his boss. In a recent interview, he wore a blue shirt and no suit coat. (Under Mueller, agents famously followed their leader’s example and wore starched white shirts and rarely took off their coats in meetings.)
McCabe’s only bit of flash were FBI-badge cuff links that dotted his shirt sleeves.
Assigned to the New York City office as a young agent, he helped build complex cases against Russian mobsters and helped take out a dangerous gang of Russian-speaking gangsters in one of his first big assignments.
Fellow agents recalled McCabe as a methodical investigator who assiduously worked to earn the trust of victims and, particularly, informants and witnesses.
“He was the kind of guy who wants to make sure everything is done by the book," said Raymond Kerr, a former supervisor. "He was also very good with people.”
A 1990 graduate of Duke University, McCabe obtained a law degree from Washington University in St. Louis. He had considered a career in law enforcement, perhaps as a prosecutor.
He decided to join the FBI instead when he was in law school and interned in the Justice Department's criminal division.
“I spent a lot of time reading agent reports, and I thought, ‘Boy, that would be a cool job,’” he said.
At the time, the FBI had a hiring freeze. So McCabe spent three years in private practice in Philadelphia until he could join the FBI. He doesn't regret the move.
“On the civil side, it’s ultimately about people arguing about money,” he said. “On our side, it’s about passion, violence and intrigue. That is the stuff that makes people tick.”