By Niall Stanage - 05-09-17 21:10 PM EDT
President Trump dropped a bombshell Tuesday - and the aftershocks could blow back to hurt the commander in chief himself.
Trump's decision to fire FBI Director James Comey stunned Washington when it became public late afternoon.
The official reason given for Comey's firing pertained to his conduct during the bureau's investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails.
The case against Comey was set out in a remarkable letter by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who said he "cannot defend" how Comey had treated Clinton.
In the polarized political climate of 2017, there is zero chance that Democrats and other critics of Trump will accept the stated explanation as the real reason for Comey's removal.
In their eyes, the germane fact is that the FBI is investigating allegations of shady dealings between Trump's presidential campaign and Russia.
"Were these investigations getting too close to home for the president?" asked Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y), at a hastily organized news conference. "Are people going to suspect cover-up? Absolutely."
The removal of Comey was one of those rare political moments that is instantly imbued with historic significance.
For Democrats, the move recalled President Richard Nixon's infamous "Saturday Night Massacre" in late 1973, when the attorney general and his deputy resigned rather than fire independent prosecutor Archibald Cox, as Nixon demanded. Nixon ultimately got what he wanted - Cox's ouster - but at immense cost to his own credibility amid the escalating Watergate scandal.
On Tuesday, Democratic lawmakers fired off a blizzard of statements condemning Trump's actions and impugning his motives - several of them alluding to the Watergate era.
Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) each described Trump's move as "Nixonian." Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) declared that "the need for a special prosecutor is now crystal clear" and accused Trump of having "catastrophically compromised" the investigation into Russia links. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) called it "deeply troubling."
Robby Mook, Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign manager, said on Twitter that the firing of Comey "terrifies me." Mook said he felt that way despite the fact that he "was as disappointed and frustrated as anyone at how the email investigation was handled."
Independent observers were hardly any more kind. CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin described Trump's decision as a "grotesque abuse of power."
The White House fought back against the tsunami of criticism, however.
A press aide emailed reporters news clips that showed Schumer expressing no confidence in Comey on a previous occasion and declaring that he had been "appalled" by the FBI director's conduct in the weeks just before last November's election.
The White House disseminated another document, via the White House press pool, highlighting criticisms from other Democrats as well as Schumer.
Democrats are, to be sure, in an incongruous position, defending Comey's integrity having been vigorously critical of him in the recent past.
The allegation of double-standards cuts both ways, however. The gist of the charge against Comey was that he had been unfair to Clinton. But just one week ago, Trump had tweeted: "FBI Director Comey was the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton in that he gave her a free pass for many bad deeds!"
In the hours after the decision, the Washington air was thick with questions. Would there be mass resignations from the FBI? Would leaks come from within its ranks, aiming to take retribution against the president? Whom would Trump appoint to replace Comey? And would Republicans join the call among Democrats for a special prosecutor into the Russian matter?
There were clear signs of Republican unease.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said in a statement that Comey's "removal at this particular time will raise questions." Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) noted he was "disappointed" by the decision. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said he was "troubled by the timing and reasoning" behind the firing.
But others, including GOP lawmakers who have been skeptical of Trump such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), were more supportive of the move.
The White House portrayed the firing of Comey as a decision Trump had made having received recommendations to that effect from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Rosenstein.
But Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) asked on Twitter, "does anyone seriously believe @realDonaldTrump fired the top person investigating his ties to Russia because he was unfair to Hillary?"
The Rosenstein letter also begged the question as to why Comey was only fired now, months after his purported transgressions regarding the Clinton investigation.
Comey slipped up during his most recent testimony to Congress when he inaccurately described how thousands of emails had found their way onto the laptop of former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) from his now estranged wife, longtime Clinton aide Huma Abedin.
But that example was not cited in the Rosenstein letter. The New York Times, citing unnamed administration officials, reported that people in the White House and the Department of Justice "had been working on building a case against Mr. Comey since at least last week."
Tuesday's high drama had its deeply personal moments. Comey was reported to have learnt of his firing from television coverage. The letter firing him was said to have been delivered to FBI headquarters by Keith Schiller, one of Trump's longest-serving personal aides, who was previously head of security for the Trump Organization.
The ousted FBI director canceled a speaking engagement in Los Angeles late in the day.
But he is assured of wall-to-wall media coverage as soon as he speaks about the matter.
One way or another, the shock of his firing will be felt for a long time.
The Trump presidency has, once again, set sail into uncharted waters.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump's presidency.