WASHINGTON — The Republican party is mostly closing ranks around its president, shielding Donald Trump against attacks over the historic firing of an FBI director who was investigating his campaign's ties to Russia.
Wednesday's circling of conservative wagons following the firing of FBI director James Comey extended from cable-news chatter to the party brass.
The prevailing attitude was reflected in a Fox News segment that presented the story as a partisan skirmish being blown out of proportion by the president's enemies, with an on-screen headline that read: "Media Meltdown — Networks Slam President For Firing Comey."
U.S. President Donald Trump looks on during talks with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (not in picture) in the Oval Office at the White House. (Photo: Alexander Shcherbak\TASS via Getty Images)
Outside the White House, however, several hundred people gathered for a noon-hour protest, brandishing signs with slogans like "Special Prosecutor Now" and "Impeach Trump."
The party's leadership in the Senate brushed off calls for a special prosecutor. Senate leader Mitch McConnell said any new investigations would only impede the current work being done. He said two investigations are already underway, in the Senate, and by the FBI — although both entities answer to Republican politicians.
Trump's vice-president dismissed the idea his boss fired Comey to save himself.
"That's not what this is about," Mike Pence said.
"Were those investigations getting too close to home for the president?"
"President Donald Trump showed strong and decisive leadership to restore the trust and confidence of the American people in the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I'm grateful for the action the president has taken."
Democrats called such explanations surreal.
Trump has suggested he fired Comey for being excessively unfair to Hillary Clinton. He said he also acted on the advice of a newly installed deputy attorney general — although reports said the president had been looking for reasons to fire Comey earlier.
Equally surreal, according to Democrats, is the idea that the president could turf the investigator investigating his own inner circle. Comey recently confirmed an intelligence investigation into ties between Trump's campaign and Russia.
"Were those investigations getting too close to home for the president?" top Democrat Chuck Schumer wondered aloud in the Senate.
"If there was ever a time when circumstances warranted a special prosecutor, it is right now... Nothing less is at stake than the American people's faith in our criminal justice system and the integrity of the executive branch of our government."
But there are small cracks in the closed ranks.
Members of the Senate intelligence committee have started to hint that their own investigation is entering a new avenue — leading to Trump's financial relationships.
It wouldn't be the first time federal authorities have probed Trump's financial space:
—The U.S. Financial Crimes Enforcement Network imposed a $10-million civil money penalty against Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort for what it called, "significant and long-standing anti-money laundering violations."
—A Russian money-laundering ring operated inside New York's Trump Tower. Dozens pleaded guilty in 2013 over the scheme. Gambling profits had been run through a financially struggling plumbing company. The two main actors worked from their apartments in Trump's building. Trump was not linked to that.
—Trump did do business with another Russian previously convicted of money-laundering. Trump walked out on a BBC interviewer in 2013 when asked about Felix Sater, whose Bayrock Group invested in three Trump properties, and who on other occasions reportedly presented himself as an employee of the Trump organization.
—Both Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort and his former national security adviser Michael Flynn have been the subject of investigations related to allegedly improperly reported income from Russia.
Now the Senate is asking for more information about Trump's finances.
Former FBI Director James Comey is sworn in prior to testifying before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on "Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Investigation" on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., May 3, 2017. (Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Its Russia investigators on the intelligence committee are asking the U.S. Treasury Department's criminal investigation division for any information relevant to the president, his top aides and campaign officials.
A Republican member of that committee, Lindsey Graham, has said he wants to know more about Trump's business dealings. The president has yet to release his taxes, which is the norm for Canadian candidates seeking high office — but breaks a decades-long precedent in the U.S.
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Republicans insist they will keep pursuing questions about Trump's Russia ties through their congressional committees.
Both Graham and Sen. Marco Rubio played down the need for an independent prosecutor — for now. They said they want to see the congressional investigation do its job, although neither ruled out additional steps later.
The Democrats sought to use what little leverage they have to push their demands.
'Was he fired?'
They not only want an independent investigation, but also a closed-door briefing for all members of the Senate, where they might ask the attorney general and deputy attorney general about the events leading up to Comey's firing.
The minority party's only leverage: the ability to gum up the Senate chamber's business. Democrats denied consent Wednesday for 13 Senate committees to meet.
As this was happening, Russia's foreign minister was visiting the State Department. In a joint press appearance with Rex Tillerson, Sergei Lavrov was asked whether the firing cast a shadow over the visit.
"Was he fired?" a mock-stunned Lavrov asked. Yes, came the reply.
"You are kidding," Lavrov answered, tongue firmly planted in cheek. "You are kidding."