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The Russian monkey on Trump’s back is hanging on for a while

President Donald Trump during a rally at the

President Donald Trump during a rally at the Kentucky Exposition Center, Monday, March 20, 2017, in Louisville, Ky. Photo Credit: AP

Trump’s Russian siege

Gamely or lamely, in the hours before the House Intelligence Committee hearing began, President Donald Trump stuck to his story that suspicions his campaign colluded with Russia are a nonstory.

“This story is FAKE NEWS and everyone knows it!” said his tweet.

If there was a “wrong” buzzer hooked up to Trump Twitter, it would have been earsplitting when FBI Director James Comey testified.

Comey confirmed his agency is probing Russian election meddling — including any possible “links” and “coordination” between the Kremlin and Trump’s team. The criminal investigation began in July, Comey said. How long will it go on? “No matter how long that takes,” he said.

Comey and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers were explicit about another conclusion: The Russians sought to help Trump and damage Hillary Clinton because Vladimir Putin “hated” her.

“They wanted to hurt our democracy, hurt her, help him. I think all three we were confident in at least as early as December,” Comey said. See Emily Ngo’s story for Newsday. For video excerpts, click here.

Clapper: Keep looking

Trump’s tweet also referred back to comments by the former director of National Intelligence James Clapper in an interview March 5 that he saw no evidence of collusion before he left two months ago.

But in a statement Monday, Clapper reiterated he was unaware of what may have been uncovered since, and “it is in the best interest of all Americans” to keep investigating.

Wiretap? Claptrap, they say

Comey also dismissed Trump’s claim that President Barack Obama had arranged for him to be wiretapped.

He testified that the FBI had “looked carefully” and both the bureau and the Justice Department concluded there is “no information that supports those tweets.”

And what about Trump’s claim last week that Obama outsourced the bugging to British intelligence, which the Brits hotly denied? That was worse than false -- it was damaging, Rogers testified.

“I think it clearly frustrates a key ally of ours,” Rogers said.

Press Secretary Sean Spicer wouldn’t run up the white flag on the allegation.

“We are still at the beginning phase of a look as to what kind of surveillance took place and why,” Spicer said.

The take-away: Talking points

Much of the big news from the hearing popped early: the confirmation that the FBI is investigating whether there was coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign, and the debunking of the president’s wiretap claims.

After that, Republicans and Democrats on the panel made their questions into debating points. GOP members tried to stoke outrage over “leaks” from classified investigations. The Democrats spun out collusion theories with dots that Comey could not connect — or knock down — in public while the probe is still underway.

See Dan Janison’s column for Newsday.

Who were those guys?

Sean Spicer did some hyperextended stretching to try to minimize the Trump connections to two key figures.

Paul Manafort “played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time” in the effort. The reality: Manafort was brought on as the top delegate-hunter and later was promoted to be the campaign’s chairman, until revelations of his work for pro-Russian Ukrainian interests became too much.

Retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn was a campaign “volunteer,” Spicer said. He was also a top surrogate and adviser who sat in with Trump on classified briefings and was named national security adviser, only to be ousted for withholding details about his conversations with the Russia ambassador.

Gulf guffaw

Trump wouldn’t answer questions about his wiretap campaign when pool reporters came into the Oval Office briefly for his meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

But al-Abadi piped up, grabbing Trump’s arm and joking: “We had nothing to do with the wiretap.”

Battle begins over Gorsuch

Democratic senators cast a harsh spotlight on the conservative judicial record of Trump’s Supreme Court pick, Neil Gorsuch, as confirmation hearings began. But they were divided on how hard to fight the nomination.

As Democrats questioned whether he was chosen in the belief he has “the vision of Donald Trump,” Gorsuch said he believed in “the importance of an independent judiciary.”

Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said the Senate is aiming to confirm Gorsuch before a two-week break that starts April 10. The resumption of hearings Tuesday will include 30 minutes allotted to each senator, which means a more unscripted format.

What else is happening

  • Trump, who boasts about being a counterpuncher, said nothing about the Russia probe during an evening rally in Louisville, Kentucky. He did say he has been president for 51 or 52 days. Actually, it was 60. Was he subtracting golf days?
  • Colin Kaepernick was on Trump's mind, though, at the Louisville rally. The president credited himself for keeping the quarterback an unsigned free agent in the NFL, for fear of his tweets. 
  • Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitano — the former New Jersey judge whose claim that Obama recruited British spies to snoop on Trump was parroted by Spicer — has been taken off the air indefinitely, the Los Angeles Times reported.
  • It may not be why he wants to cut funds for public broadcasting, but Trump was parodied several times on the kids’ show “Sesame Street,” The Washington Post recalls. The character Ronald Grump was a builder and a bad-tempered blowhard.
  • As the third month of his presidency begins, Trump has filled only 20 of the 553 key positions that require Senate confirmation — and has not even picked a nominee for 497 of them, Politico reported.
  • Trump has hit a low point in Gallup’s daily tracking poll — 37 percent approval. Other recent polls put him in the 40s.
  • Trump’s net worth has fallen by $1 billion in the past year, to $3.5 billion, dropping him from 324th to 544th on Forbes’ list of the world’s richest people. Among the reasons: Values fell for Trump’s midtown Manhattan properties.
  • Ivanka Trump, stepping up her role as an adviser to her dad, is getting a West Wing office and a security clearance, but no formal title, Politico reports.
  • Eric Trump and his wife, Lara, disclosed they are expecting their first child in September. That’s “the best news of the day,” Kellyanne Conway tweeted. Fact check: For the Trump White House on Monday, probably true.

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