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By firing Comey, will Trump make the Russia probe disappear?

FBI Director James Comey, seen here during a

FBI Director James Comey, seen here during a March 20, 2017, House Intelligence Committee hearing on Russian meddling in the 2016 election, was fired by President Donald Trump on Tuesday, May 9. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Drew Angerer

No Comey-uppance for Trump

President Donald Trump had been shopping for reasons to fire James Comey since at least last week, according to New York Times and CNN reporters, and perhaps longer, The Washington Post said.

The decision to oust the FBI director leading an investigation into Russia’s election meddling and potential links to the Trump’s campaign set off shock waves reminiscent of the 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre.”

That was when President Richard Nixon fired a special prosecutor and the top two Justice Department officials to shut down the Watergate investigation. Congressional committees took up the case, and when impeachment became inevitable the following year, Nixon resigned.

One big difference back then: Democrats controlled Congress.

What will become of the Trump-Russia investigations? Top Democrats are calling for an independent prosecutor.

With Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal from Russia probes, that decision appeared to rest with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who wrote the letter justifying Comey’s dismissal.

It’s up to Trump to nominate Comey’s successor and the Senate to confirm.

Timing is everything 

While the firing resounded on Wednesday, CBS and CNN reported that federal officials probing Russian meddling in last year's election issued grand jury subpoenas for business records of associates of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports that Flynn is telling a different story from his former Turkish client about payments totalling $80,000 that the retired lieutenant general returned to the client.

Through the looking glass

The firing was stunning enough, but equally startling was the rationale Rosenstein came up with -- contending, in effect, that Comey had been unfair to Hillary Clinton.

Comey, he said, had “usurped the authority” of President Barack Obama’s Justice Department in his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation and -- “compounding the error” -- held a news conference to “release derogatory information” about her.

Trump, of course, complained then and now that Comey was too easy on Clinton, though he benefited from the brief reopening of the investigation in the days before the election.

The Rosenstein and Sessions letters made no mention of the Russia probe. Trump, in his dismissal letter, wrote “I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation.” (See the letters here.)

Suspicions of ‘cover-up’

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said when Trump called him a few minutes before the Comey firing became public, he told the president, “You are making a big mistake,” Newsday’s Tom Brune and Emily Ngo reported.

“If Deputy Attorney General [Rod] Rosenstein does not appoint an independent special prosecutor, every American will rightly suspect that the decision to fire Director Comey was part of a cover-up,” Schumer said at news conference.

Democrats overwhelmingly condemned Trump’s move. Even as some recalled their own misgivings over Comey’s treatment of Clinton, they weren’t buying that explanation.

Republican reaction was milder -- some welcoming fresh leadership at the FBI, others disturbed by it.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), leading a Senate Intelligence Committee probe, said he was “troubled” by “the timing and reasoning” of Comey’s firing. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he was “disappointed in the president’s decision” and said it confirms “the need and the urgency” for a special congressional committee to conduct an investigation.

Sticking out his tongue

Trump abused Comey and Schumer anew on his Twitter account following the firing. 

On Comey: "James Comey will be replaced by someone who will do a far better job, bringing back the spirit and prestige of the FBI."

Then the president dredged up a Drudge Report about "10 scandals" on Comey's watch and retweeted it.

On Schumer: "Cryin' Chuck Schumer stated recently, "I do not have confidence in him (James Comey) any longer." Then acts so indignant. #draintheswamp"

As seen on TV

Trump became famous for his boardroom contestant-firing scenes on “The Apprentice.” This one came up short on finesse.

Trump sent his longtime private bodyguard, Keith Schiller, to FBI headquarters to deliver the letter. But Comey was visiting the Los Angeles FBI office when the news came across on TV.

The Russia business

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is among those curious about a cryptic nonanswer from former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper at Monday’s Judiciary subcommittee hearing on Russian election meddling.

When Graham pressed Clapper on whether he ever found “a situation where a Trump business interest in Russia” gave him “concern,” Clapper answered: “I can’t comment on that because that impacts an investigation.”

“I want to know more about Trump’s business dealings,” Graham told CNN Tuesday. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the White House had already instructed a Washington law firm to send Graham a certified letter that the president doesn’t have business connections to Russia.

Unclear was how “no connections” is being defined. Russian oligarchs have bought Trump properties.

The slow trigger on Flynn

Trump hesitated to act on a warning from then acting Attorney General Sally Yates that Michael Flynn was at risk of blackmail by Russia in part because she was viewed as a supporter of Clinton, Spicer said.

The evidence?

It was “widely rumored” that Yates would benefit from a Clinton win, Spicer said. Yates was a career Justice Department prosecutor, hired during the Republican George H.W. Bush administration.

Flynn was fired after The Washington Post revealed the substance of Flynn’s contacts with the Russian ambassador.

See Emily Ngo’s story for Newsday.

A reference for Rosenstein

Yates was asked by Graham at the conclusion of her testimony at a Senate hearing Monday whether she had confidence in Rosenstein.

“Yes, I do,” she replied.

The take-away: In deeper

As he contemplates expanding the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, Trump is facing a decision on who to listen to -- his generals, whom he’s pledged to give a freer hand, or his own past expressed misgivings on a war in its 16th year.

“At some point, are they going to be there for the next 200 years?” Trump asked in 2015. By last year, he had come around to the belief that the United States needed to maintain a presence, but “I hate doing it so much.” See Dan Janison’s column for Newsday.

What else is happening

  • Trump has put off a decision on whether to pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement until after he returns from the May 26-27 Group of Seven summit in Italy.
  • Arrests of people caught trying to enter the United States from Mexico without authorization fell again last month to the lowest level in 17 years, an indicator that fewer people are attempting illegal crossings.
  • Four states, including New York, are suing over the Trump administration’s decision to restart the sale of coal leases on federal lands.
  • Sessions may reverse Obama-era policy changes that eliminated harsh punishment for low-level drug crimes. Prosecutors in the previous administration had been told to avoid bringing charges against minor offenders that carry severe mandatory minimum sentences, The Washington Post reported.
  • The Trump administration will provide heavier weapons for Syria’s Kurds battling ISIS, risking a rift with Turkey, which has been fighting Kurds it calls terrorists on its own territory.
  • The shuttered Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, hailed by its namesake as the “eighth wonder of the world” when he built it for $1.2 billion in 1990, was sold in March for $50 million, The Associated Press reported. Trump sold off his interest years ago and had no stake in the sale.

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