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Facing probes on Russia links, Trump tries to shift focus

President Donald Trump signs an executive order in

President Donald Trump signs an executive order in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. Credit: AP / Evan Vucci

Trump’s alternate-reality show

The official White House explanation from Press Secretary Sean Spicer was that Donald Trump asked Michael Flynn to resign because he had lost his “trust.” But that was Tuesday.

Trump Wednesday hailed Flynn as a “wonderful man” who was “treated very, very unfairly by the media,” done in by leaks from intelligence sources that were a “criminal action, criminal act.”

Trump did not address what those media reports uncovered — the national security adviser’s failure to be forthcoming about his conversations with the Russian ambassador. Nor did the president directly deny accounts of frequent contact with Russian intelligence operatives by his senior campaign staffers.

In the past, his team has dismissed such reports. A morning Trump tweet storm ridiculed “conspiracy theories” and “Russian connection non-sense,” calling leaks “the real scandal.”

While Trump plays the No-look-over-there! deflection game, the Senate Intelligence Committee is expanding its investigation of Russian interference in the U.S. election to look also at Flynn’s actions. A panel member, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), said he wants Flynn called to testify.

And two House GOP committee chairmen asked the Justice Department inspector general to investigate the leaks.

See Emily Ngo’s story for Newsday.

Fast food CEO to go

Andrew Puzder, the fast food executive nominated for labor secretary, became the first of Trump’s Cabinet picks to flame out — withdrawing amid Republican concerns he lacked the votes for confirmation, Newsday’s Tom Brune reports.

A dozen Republican senators declined to commit to support Puzder after he admitted he had employed an undocumented housekeeper and court records emerged in which his ex-wife said he physically abused her, although she later recanted.

He was fiercely opposed by Democrats and labor groups. As boss of the parent company of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., he opposed the minimum wage, preferred robots as workers and disparaged his employees.

The take-away: The getaway

Trump never tires of pretending he didn’t lose after he did. But he didn’t invent the PR tactic.

Newsday’s Dan Janison recalls how Trump’s friend Rudy Giuliani became a master practitioner of the playing-offense-as-defense arts while New York City's mayor.

Incomplete tweet

The president tweeted on Thursday morning: "The spotlight has finally been put on the low-life leakers! They will be caught!"

He says this after lamenting that leaks have long been a problem in Washington. Missing from his message: What steps are being taken? Who is suspected? Anyone in particular? Was the "leaked" information accurate? What was the apparent motive?

Supported facts, please?

Clearly Twitter is no substitute for news conferences.'

Keeping intel inside 

Officials have "withheld sensitive intelligence from President Donald Trump because they are concerned it could be leaked or compromised," sources told the Wall Street Journal. Does that itself constitute a leak? If so, it looks like the leaking hasn't stopped. 

Trump’s potluck peace recipe

Trump met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and offered this guidance on a key question for forging a peace plan with the Palestinians: You guys figure it out.

The president neither endorsed nor abandoned the long-standing U.S. policy of a two-state solution. Trump said he “could live with” either. “I want the one that both parties want,” he said.

But to improve prospects of getting talks going again, Trump told Netanyahu at their joint news conference: “I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit.”

Trump predicted he would broker a peace. “I think we’re going to make a deal. It might be a bigger and better deal than people in this room even understand, so that’s a possibility,” he said.

Asked and unanswered

During the news conference, an Israeli journalist asked Trump about reports of a rise in anti-Semitic incidents since his campaign, and to respond to Jews who believe his administration is “playing with xenophobia and maybe racist tones.”

Trump’s answer wandered off-topic, starting with his election victory and Electoral College vote totals, moving next to fighting crime and seeking an end to “long-simmering racism,” and noting he has Jewish friends and family.

He never quite got back to the subject of anti-Semitism or a condemnation of it, which the Anti-Defamation League found “troubling.”

Roar of the crowd

The way he keeps talking about the election, it raises the question: Did Trump enjoy running for president more than being one?

He will have a chance to relive the good old days of 2016 with a campaign-style airport rally Saturday in Melbourne, Florida.

What else is happening

  • Meeting with NATO defense ministers in Brussels, Defense Secretary James Mattis carried an ultimatum from Trump: While the United States will  “meet its responsibilities,” it will also “moderate its commitment to the alliance” if the allied nations don’t boost their military spending.
  • With Flynn gone, Trump has offered the job of national security adviser to Vice Admiral Robert Harward, several reports said. Harward, 60, a former Navy SEAL, served as deputy commander of U.S. Central Command under Mattis.
  • The Defense Department might seek Trump’s approval to send conventional ground combat forces into northern Syria to boost the fight against ISIS, CNN reported.
  • The Defense Intelligence Agency has suspended Flynn’s security clearance pending a review, a defense official said.
  • Divisions, dysfunction and high-profile exits have left the young Trump administration nearly paralyzed and allies wondering how it will reboot, reports The Associated Press.
  • Congress is stalled on its promised sweeping initiatives in the new Trump era, the Times reports.
  • Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Homeland Security head John Kelly will visit Mexico next Thursday to re-establish “constructive” ties, Mexico’s foreign ministry said.

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