US President Donald Trump escalated his assault on federal law enforcement agencies while one of his lawyers argued that the controversial firing of a top FBI official was reason to end the Justice Department Special Counsel's expansive Russia investigation.
After Attorney-General Jeff Sessions acted on Saturday on Trump's publicly-stated wishes to terminate former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe - just hours before he was set to retire with full benefits - the President celebrated the ouster as a triumph that exposed "tremendous leaking, lying and corruption" throughout law enforcement.
The move emboldened McCabe, who said that his dismissal was a deliberate effort to slander him and part of an "ongoing war" against the FBI and the Russia probe being led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Like former FBI Director James Comey, who was fired by Trump last year, McCabe kept contemporaneous memos detailing his fraught conversations with the President, according to two people familiar with the records.
The danger for Trump is that those memos could help corroborate McCabe's witness testimony and become damaging evidence in Mueller's investigation of whether Trump has sought to obstruct justice.
Trump asked McCabe in an Oval Office meeting last May who he voted for and complained about the political donations McCabe's wife received for her failed 2015 Virginia state Senate campaign. In addition, Comey confided to McCabe about his private conversations with Trump, including when the President asked for his loyalty.
McCabe's firing - coupled with the comments of Trump and his personal lawyer, John Dowd - marked an extraordinary acceleration of the battle between the President and the Special Counsel, whose probe Trump has long dismissed as a politically-motivated witch-hunt.
Dowd said in a statement: "I pray that Acting Attorney-General Rosenstein will follow the brilliant and courageous example of the FBI Office of Professional Responsibility and Attorney-General Jeff Sessions and bring an end to alleged Russia Collusion investigation manufactured by McCabe's boss James Comey based upon a fraudulent and corrupt Dossier."
Dowd's defiance was a dramatic shift. The White House has previously responded to requests for documents, while senior officials have sat for hours of interviews with the Special Counsel's investigators.
The statement was first reported by the Daily Beast, which explained that Dowd said he was speaking on behalf of Trump. Dowd later backtracked, telling the Washington Post that he was speaking only for himself. Trump has been known in the past to direct surrogates to make bold claims publicly as a way of market-testing ideas. Dowd declined to say if he consulted the President before issuing his statement.
An Administration official said that Trump "just thinks they should wrap it up. He sees it becoming a big fishing expedition."
For months now, the President has raged in private conversations with friends and advisers over the intensifying investigation. People familiar with his thinking said he has been especially agitated by Mueller's probing into the financial and other records of his private business, the Trump Organisation.
Sessions fired McCabe as an outgrowth of an investigation by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, who is examining the FBI's handling of its probe of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server. In the course of that broad review, Horowitz's team found that McCabe had authorised two other FBI officials to speak to the media about an ongoing criminal investigation, and then - in their view - misled investigators about it.
White House officials said they did not believe Trump had explicitly ordered Sessions to fire McCabe. But he arguably did not have to. McCabe had long drawn Trump's ire, and the President has publicly called for his dismissal. Trump has long been furious at Sessions for recusing himself from overseeing the Mueller probe. White House officials said the Attorney-General is perpetually trying to prove his worth to Trump and had to have known that firing McCabe would please the boss.
Trump hailed McCabe's dismissal in a gleeful tweet as "A great day for Democracy." Former CIA director John Brennan responded on Twitter: "When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history. You may scapegoat Andy McCabe, but you will not destroy America . . . America will triumph over you."
After Dowd issued his statement yesterday, Trump reiterated his claim that there was "no collusion" between his campaign and Russians, and attacked federal agencies that are under his command. But he stopped short of echoing Dowd's call for an end to the Mueller probe.
In a second tweet, Trump repeated his now-familiar attacks on McCabe and Comey. Some allies worry he is playing with fire by taunting the FBI.
"This is open, all-out war, and guess what? The FBI's going to win," said one ally. "You can't fight the FBI. They're going to torch him."
3 reasons to fire
1) To send messages. Firing Andrew McCabe could be a scare tactic to deter others from leaking or a warning that if Donald Trump thinks you are his enemy, he might come after you.
2) To show power over Jeff Sessions. Trump has not held back when he disagrees with his Attorney-General.
3) To look like a champion of the working class. On Fox & Friends on Friday, aide Kellyanne Conway said Trump had met "a tearful cafeteria worker ... saying thank you for my tax cut." Host Ainsley Earhardt said: "[McCabe] gets to live on a pension that hard-working lady has to pay for ... [Sessions could] ... fire that guy."