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Trump's behavior on Russia made the FBI suspicious. Can you blame them?

Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump

Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump at the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires on Nov. 30, 2018. Photo Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Juan Mabromata

The unusual suspect

"Have you ever worked for Russia, Mr. President?" asked a smirking Jeanine Pirro, one of Donald Trump's favorite Fox News hosts.

“I think it’s the most insulting thing I’ve ever been asked," Trump replied — an implicit, if not explicit, denial. (Click here for an excerpt.)

According to The New York Times, the FBI didn't think the question was nuts in May 2017 after Trump fired bureau director James Comey and bragged to a pair of Russian diplomats visiting the White House the next day that the "great pressure" he faced because of Russia was "taken off."

Before then, while contacts between Russia and four people associated with Trump's campaign were already under scrutiny, and Trump's own Russia ties and comments — including praise for Vladimir Putin — had generated suspicion, the FBI had held off on launching a counterintelligence probe of Trump himself. No evidence has since emerged publicly that Trump was in secret contact with or took direction from Russian officials, and it is unknown whether special counsel Robert Mueller is still looking into it, the Times reported.

But Trump's behavior on Russia matters continues to spark questions. The Washington Post reported Trump has gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal details of his private conversations with Vladi­mir Putin, even from top officials in his administration, including on at least one occasion seizing the notes of his own interpreter. 

The top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, Mark Warner (D-Va.), said on CNN, "I do think it’s curious that throughout that whole summer when these investigations started, you had Vladimir Putin policies almost being parroted by Donald Trump.” House foreign affairs chairman Rep. Eliot Engel (D-Bronx) announced that the panel will hold hearings on "the mysteries swirling around Trump’s bizarre relationship with Putin and his cronies, and how those dark dealings affect our national security.”

A Trump ally, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), suggested the FBI investigation was overreach. "What I want to do is make sure, how could the FBI do that? What kind of checks and balances are there?" Graham said on "Fox News Sunday."

Janison: Fear factor

Trump's team tried for 20 months to stymie and discredit Mueller. They failed and are bracing themselves to contain the damage they expect to be coming.

Last week, Rudy Giuliani told The Hill that Trump's lawyers should get a chance to "correct" Mueller's final report before the public gets to see it. A beefed-up bevy of White House legal advisers was ready to try to keep Trump's confidential discussions with top advisers from being disclosed to House investigators and revealed in the Mueller report. See Dan Janison's column for Newsday.

Dems: Don't scare the witness

When asked late last week about plans for his ex-lawyer Michael Cohen to testify before a House investigating committee, Trump said he was "not worried about it at all." Perhaps the worry is starting to grow on him.

"He should give information maybe on his father-in-law, because that’s the one that people want to look at," Trump said during his call-in to Pirro. "Because where does that money — that’s the money in the family."

That prompted a warning Sunday from three top Democratic House committee chairs to Trump, saying he cannot "discourage, intimidate or otherwise pressure" witnesses.

"The President should make no statement or take any action to obstruct Congress’ independent oversight and investigative efforts," said Reps. Elijah Cummings, Adam Schiff and Jerry Nadler, who chair the oversight, intelligence and judiciary panels.

Gee, no shutdown strategy?

Top Republicans in Congress tried last month to talk Trump out of a shutdown over his border wall funding demands, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) telling him that, without a clear strategy, he would be “boxed in a canyon,” according to The Washington Post

In the shutdown's fourth week, there is still no apparent strategy. Trump tweeted Saturday, “I do have a plan on the Shutdown.” But the plan seemed to be for Democrats to capitulate, recognizing that he won election on what he called a promise of "safety and security for the American people.” 

On Sunday, Trump indirectly dangled the prospect of a deal on the Obama-era DACA program in exchange for wall money. "Democrats are saying that DACA is not worth it and don’t want to include in talks," Trump tweeted. "Many Hispanics will be coming over to the Republican side, watch!"

Three days earlier, Trump said he didn't want to include DACA in a broader deal until the Supreme Court ruled on his 2017 order to end the program. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), speaking on "Fox News Sunday," said the challenge of negotiating with Trump is “you don’t know what Trump you are going to get each day." For more on the shutdown, see Laura Figueroa Hernandez's story for Newsday.

Polls: Trump still owns shutdown

Two major polls out Sunday show majorities of the public blame Trump for the shutdown. In a CNN survey, 55% say he is more responsible for the shutdown than the Democrats in Congress, while 32% say the fault rests mostly with the Democrats. In an ABC News/Washington Post poll, 53% said that Trump and the GOP are mainly responsible for the shutdown, while 29% blamed congressional Democrats.

Majorities in both polls also reject Trump's argument for a Mexican border wall, though the surveys showed the president had won some converts. In the ABC/Post poll, the wall was opposed 54%-42%, a 12-point margin, compared with 29 points a year ago. CNN found the no-wall majority had a 17-point edge, compared with 27 points in January 2018.

Trump's job approval in the CNN poll was 37%, its lowest point since September.

'Six months to live!'

From the puiblication that spawned the hallucinatory headline above about Hillary Clinton (from October 2015)  comes juicy dish about the marriage of Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos. Because Trump likes to villify Bezos, he is shilling for the supermarket tabloid in his latest juvenile tweet:

"So sorry to hear the news about Jeff Bozo (sic) being taken down by a competitor whose reporting, I understand, is far more accurate than the reporting in his lobbyist newspaper, the Amazon Washington Post. Hopefully the paper will soon be placed in better & more responsible hands!"

Which is not to say that all goes too well for Trump himself these days at the Enquirer's organization -- whose fake JFK-killing story he once famously used to smear Sen. Ted Cruz.  By all accounts Enquirer publisher David Pecker gave the feds information related to covering up scandal stories about Trump.

What else is happening:

  • After Trump attacked him in a tweetstorm over the new Russia probe revelations, Comey responded with a quote from Franklin D. Roosevelt: “I ask you to judge me by the enemies I have made.” Twitter sleuths discovered that Trump used the same quote in a tweet in 2012, The Guardian reports.
  • Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said that he will force a vote on a resolution disapproving of the Trump administration's decision to relax sanctions on companies connected to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska.
  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, edging toward a 2020 run for president, met with prominent feminists and other influential women Saturday and is signaling that gender issues would be a top focus of her campaign, BuzzFeed reported.
  • New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said on CNN's "State of the Union" that he isn’t ruling out the possibility of running for president in 2020. “I never rule things out because you never know what life brings,” said de Blasio, calling for a rejection of the "moderate voices in the party that did not learn the lessons of 2016."
  • National security adviser John Bolton asked the Pentagon last year to provide the White House with military options to strike Iran, The Wall Street Journal reported. Pentagon and State Department officials thought it was an overreaction to an ineffectual mortar attack by pro-Iran militants on a diplomatic compound in Baghdad.
  • Trump has been grumpy about missing Mar-a-Lago during the shutdown, but he looked away from the TV and out a window Sunday to discover a winter wonderland. He tweeted: "Wish I could share with everyone the beauty and majesty of being in the White House and looking outside at the snow filled lawns and Rose Garden. Really is something — SPECIAL COUNTRY, SPECIAL PLACE!"

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