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Mueller's in the crosshairs, and Trump just lined up a hit man

Former FBI Director Robert Mueller, the special counsel

Former FBI Director Robert Mueller, the special counsel probing Russian interference in the 2016 election, departs Capitol Hill following a closed door meeting in Washington in this June 21, 2017 photo. Photo Credit: AP/Andrew Harnik

Is winter coming for Russia probe?

For many months, Donald Trump has complained incessantly and obsessively about special counsel Robert Mueller's "witch hunt," but he didn't do anything drastic about it. Not with the political risks it would pose for Tuesday's midterm elections.

On Wednesday, he broke free of the restraints. Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had recused himself from the Russia investigation and left its oversight in the hands of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Trump named a new acting attorney general who will take that responsibility from Rosenstein.

His name is Matthew Whitaker. Last year, Whitaker wrote an opinion piece for CNN.com warning that Mueller's investigation would be going too far if it crossed a "red line" by looking into Trump Organization finances.

He tweeted a "worth a read" recommendation for another opinion piece urging Trump's lawyers not to cooperate with "Mueller's lynch mob." He argued on CNN that there is no obstruction-of-justice case to be made over Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey. He even mused about a temporary Sessions successor cutting Mueller's budget "so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt.”

And wait, there's more: In 2016, right after Comey announced he wouldn't pursue criminal charges against Hillary Clinton, Whitaker wrote for USA Today: "I would indict Hillary Clinton." 

Whitaker's comments could trigger a review by ethics officials of whether it's appropriate for Whitaker to oversee Mueller, The Washington Post reported. Democrats including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer demanded he recuse himself.

At a news conference before Sessions' exit was disclosed, Trump said the Mueller probe  was "very bad for our country,"  but insisted he wasn't going to stop the Mueller investigation. "I could have ended it anytime I wanted. I didn’t," he said. But now he has someone who could try to cripple it, if not moving to dismiss Mueller outright.

'This American carnage' continued

Trump spoke opaquely and darkly at his inauguration that "this American carnage" had magically stopped just then and there. "Your child isn't going to be shot," he said. "I’ll be able to make sure that when you walk down the street in your inner city, or wherever you are, you’re not going to be shot."

On Thursday morning the news was all about another mass shooting, this one in a bar in Thousand Oaks, California. The president tweeted his usual recital of vague feel-good bromides. 

Democrats sound alarm

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi tweeted that "Congress must take immediate action to protect the rule of law and integrity of the investigation. She called Sessions' firing "another blatant attempt by @realDonaldTrump to undermine & end Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation." 

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan), in line to chair the Judiciary Committee, tweeted a demand for explanations after Trump's shake-up at the Justice Department, saying, "We will be holding people accountable."

A handful of Republicans — Sen. Susan Collins, Sen. Jeff Flake and senator-elect Mitt Romney — echoed calls for Mueller to be protected. But Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not allowed the Senate to consider legislation that would do that. He issued a statement wishing Sessions well, but making no mention of Mueller.

Ready to rumble

Trump's move signaled he won't hesitate to play poke-a-bear with the House Democrats, who had already vowed to use their new power come January for far-reaching investigations into him and his administration. He said at the news conference that he would take on a "warlike posture" in response.

“They can play that game, but we can play it better," the president said.

Janison: Empire state of blue

In New York, Trump's home state, the election results have left Democrats with even more clout and Republicans further diminished, writes Newsday's Dan Janison. Why should he care? Because it strengthens resistance to Trump in ways that can matter.

The attorney general's office under Letitia James will continue to vex Trump via lawsuit on the defunct Trump Foundation, and could serve as a backstop to press other potential cases, such as on Trump's murky business finances, if Mueller is blocked from pursuing them.

The Democrats' new control of both houses of the legislature makes it easier to counter a Trump policy on subjects such as immigration, criminal justice and abortion rights.

A one-man circular firing squad

Early In his 90-minute news conference, Trump spoke about seeking bipartisan deals with the Democrats who control of the House. But his mood swung to churlish as he threw darts at his usual targets, including several reporters in the room, and some new ones — Republican candidates who he said lost because they failed to "embrace" him.

He went so far as to name eight of them to celebrate the defeats. "I'm not sure that I should be happy or sad, but I feel just fine about it," Trump said. He mocked Utah's Mia Love — a daughter of Haitian immigrants, who in January denounced Trump's "shithole countries" slur. "Mia Love gave me no love and she lost. . . . Too bad. Sorry about that, Mia.” Actually, her race was still too close to call.

Also, some of Trump's most fervent House GOP fans went down. Among them: South Carolina's Katie Arrington, who had beaten Rep. Mark Sanford in a primary by persuading GOP voters she was Trumpier, and central New York Rep. Claudia Tenney. In California, Dana Rohrabacher, Congress' No. 1 fan of Vladimir Putin, was behind in a race yet to be called.

For more on Trump's news conference, see Newsday's story by Candice Ferrette and Emily Ngo

What, me racist?

Trump responded angrily to PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor when she tried to ask a question about whether Trump's self-description as a nationalist emboldened white nationalists.

"That’s such a racist question," Trump interrupted. " . . . What you said is so insulting to me. It’s a very terrible thing that you said."

Coincidentally, the leader of a white supremacist group, Identity Evropa, posted photos of himself visiting the White House on Wednesday, claiming on Twitter that he stopped by in order to "pay [his] respects."

Will there be deals?

It's too soon, especially considering Trump's chronic inconsistency, to see where the Democratic House, Republican Senate and president might find common ground in the next two years. But a few ideas were floated.

Trump said he’s open to raising some tax rates to help pay for a bigger tax break for middle-class Americans. McConnell conceded there's no chance of repealing Obamacare and said there could be fixes to shore up the law's insurance markets. Trump and Pelosi said they might be able to work on lowering prescription drug prices. All three talked about infrastructure.

For more on Pelosi's plans, see Newsday's story by Tom Brune.

What else is happening:

  • Loyalist AG Whitaker may fit into the administration in more ways than one. He served on the advisory board of a Florida company that was shut down and ordered to pay $26 million in an alleged "scam that has bilked thousands of consumers out of millions of dollars," CNN shows.
  • Trump indicated he may make one more push next month before Republicans hand over the House to get billions more in funding for his border wall. He was open to threatening a government shutdown. McConnell was not.
  • Two of Trump's most loyal Capitol Hill supporters, Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Kevin McCarthy of California, will be duking it out to become the party's House leader, succeeding the retiring Paul Ryan.
  • The Pentagon said Wednesday it is no longer calling the U.S. military mission on the Mexican border "Operation Faithful Patriot." Trump's campaign-hyped response to a migrant caravan "invasion" is now simply "border support" the day after the 2018 midterm elections.
  • Sessions was told to leave by the end of the day in a call from White House chief of staff John Kelly, CNN reported. Trump, who has long made Sessions a target of public ridicule, tweeted, "We thank Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his service, and wish him well!"   
  • The White House suspended the pass of CNN's Jim Acosta after Trump angrily cut off his questioning at the news conference. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders accused Acosta of "placing his hands" on a young female intern who was trying to take the mic away. Acosta and CNN denied it. 
  • From MAGA man to "magic man?" Trump tweeted comments on Fox Business Network from conservative author/actor/economist Ben Stein crediting Trump for Republican success in Senate races. "This guy has magic coming out of his ears,” Stein said. 
  • A divorce lawyer for Rudy Giuliani, fighting money demands from estranged wife Judith Nathan, said nowadays he's only earning half of the $9 million a year he used to pull in. Nathan's lawyer suggested that's a poor excuse when Giuliani is representing Trump against Mueller for free.

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