Washington: FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe, who has received blistering criticism from President Donald Trump, has stepped down and will be on leave until he retires sometime in the spring, a person familiar with the matter said Monday.

Trump and some Republican lawmakers have increasingly argued there’s evidence that past officials at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, including McCabe, were biased toward Democrat Hillary Clinton and against Trump in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Monday that Trump’s White House team wasn’t involved in the action. “The president wasn’t part of this decision-making process," she added.

Several former Justice Department and FBI officials were quick to defend McCabe and decry the circumstances surrounding his departure.

“FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe is, and has been, a dedicated public servant who has served this country well," former attorney general Eric Holder wrote on Twitter. “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."

Also on Twitter, former FBI director James Comey, who was fired by Trump last year, wrote: “Special Agent Andrew McCabe stood tall when small people were trying to tear down an institution we all depend on."

Former FBI special agent Clint Watts, who served on a bureau joint terrorism task force and as a consultant to its counterterrorism division, was another defender of McCabe on Twitter.

“Andy McCabe dedicated his life to serving his country, leading countless investigations protecting American lives, in return he’s been bullied by politicians & battered by parts of the American public—a travesty," he wrote.

Last week, Trump told reporters he didn’t remember asking McCabe—then acting FBI director— whom he voted for in the 2016 election shortly after the president fired Comey. The Washington Post reported that the conversation with McCabe is of interest to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating possible collusion with Russia during the campaign and potential obstruction of justice.

‘Very unimportant question’

“I don’t think so. No, I don’t think I did. I don’t know what’s the big deal with that, because I asked—I would ask you, ‘Who did you vote for?’ But I don’t remember that," Trump told reporters. “I don’t remember asking him the question. I also think it is a very unimportant question."

On Monday, the president ignored shouted questions from reporters about McCabe. McCabe’s departure from the bureau was expected some time after he becomes fully eligible for pension benefits in March.

Trump tweeted in late December, “FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe is racing the clock to retire with full benefits. 90 days to go?!!!"

The official next in line to become acting FBI director is David Bowdich, who currently serves as associate deputy director. However, FBI director Christopher Wray will be able to choose a permanent deputy from the career ranks of senior bureau officials.

Political controversies

McCabe’s tenure has become entangled in recent years in politically charged controversies, including the investigation into Clinton’s use of private email when she was secretary of state, and the ongoing criminal probe into Russian interference.

Most recently, House Republicans demanded to know what discussions McCabe might have had in 2016 with two FBI officials who exchanged text messages critical of Trump. One of them referred to a meeting in “Andy’s office" where they discussed “that there’s no way" Trump would be elected but “we can’t take that risk."

McCabe, 49, also came under Republican criticism in 2016 when he helped oversee the Clinton email investigation even though his wife had accepted donations from Democratic political organisations for an unsuccessful election bid in 2015 to the Virginia state senate.

The FBI said in a statement at the time that McCabe “played no role" in his wife’s campaign “and did not participate in fundraising or support of any kind."

“He ought to be replaced. And I’ve said that before and I’ve said it to people who can do it," Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said on 19 December, the day before McCabe was interviewed behind closed doors by the House Intelligence Committee.

McCabe joined the FBI in 1996 and held management positions in the counterterrorism division and the Washington field office. He became the FBI’s acting director after Comey was fired in May, and served in that role until 2 August when Wray took charge. Bloomberg