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Manic morning raises stakes for Mueller probe

Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

(CNN) -- Watergate had the Saturday Night Massacre. Now, this generation's White House scandal has its own iconic moment — the Saturday Morning Meltdown.

The firing of former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe in the pitch dark of a Washington night unleashed a sudden chain of barely believable consequences and revelations in a frenzied few hours on Saturday.

The capital reverberated with claims by McCabe that President Donald Trump orchestrated his ouster to cover up his own obstruction of justice. Trump himself presented the episode as purging the stench of corruption at the tip of the Washington establishment, consistent with his mission to "drain the swamp." "There was tremendous leaking, lying and corruption at the highest levels of the FBI, Justice & State," Trump tweeted, consciously escalating his war with what supporters see as a "deep state" dedicated to his destruction.

McCabe's firing by Attorney General Jeff Sessions also blew the lid off a boiling feud between retired or fired intelligence agency giants like ex-CIA chief John Brennan and fired FBI Director James Comey and the President of the United States. Their fury unfolded in an astounding blast of threats and insults made possible by the cathartic properties of Twitter -- a medium unavailable to the protagonists of previous Washington melodramas.

The bitter exchanges hinted at conversations going on inside the Oval Office after one of the President's men, personal lawyer John Dowd, issued a prayer for the termination of the Russia inquiry — then hurriedly trying to fix his mess, insisted that he wasn't actually speaking for Trump himself.

Later Saturday, Trump tested what could potentially become an argument for removing the special counsel in a tweet.

"The Mueller probe should never have been started in that there was no collusion and there was no crime," Trump tweeted. "It was based on fraudulent activities and a Fake Dossier paid for by Crooked Hillary and the DNC, and improperly used in FISA COURT for surveillance of my campaign. WITCH HUNT!"

CNN has reported that the Steele dossier, to which the President was referring, was not instrumental in launching the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign.

The open warfare between the White House and another top FBI figure dealt another damaging blow to the image of the bureau itself, revealing how deep into the political mire it has slipped since being embroiled in the toxic 2016 campaign politics.

And revelations that McCabe had both kept Comey-style memos of his conversations with the President, and that McCabe had been interviewed by the special counsel's team, stoked new intrigue around the question of whether Trump obstructed justice by firing his first FBI director, who was leading the inquiry into whether his campaign colluded with Russia.

Ultimately, Saturday's events served to reveal the expanding web of vendettas and alleged skulduggery clawing at the heart of America's government that potentially threatens the long-term health of the nation's democracy itself.

In so doing, they immeasurably raised the stakes for the investigation led by the silent but relentless special counsel Robert Mueller, who now seems the only hope for a way out of a moment of grave national crisis.

A very unusual dismissal

In normal times, the firing of McCabe would have been, if not routine, well within the bounds of political convention.

His dismissal was recommended by a panel of career disciplinary officials at the bureau after they found he had shown a lack of candor under oath, a career killing lapse for any FBI officer.

But it was the way the firing was carried out following months of pressure by the President demanding his ouster that raised concerns. Added to that, McCabe is a potential witness in any obstruction case against Trump, adding to suspicions the President was trying to impugn his character.

And the fact that the firing unfolded on Friday night, the witching hour Washington players choose to hide politically damaging news, exacerbated the sinister undertones.

And the man who wielded the axe, Sessions, is supposed to be recused from any matters to do with the 2016 election — and McCabe's alleged transgression was related to the Hillary Clinton email probe.

Sessions had been under withering pressure for McCabe's firing for months from a billionaire President rooting for the career civil servant to be canned before he could formally retire on Sunday and receive his full pension benefits.

In a tweet, Trump celebrated the move — and made no attempt to hide that his distaste for McCabe was motivated by his loyalty to Comey — creating another potential data point for Mueller.

"The Fake News is beside themselves that McCabe was caught, called out and fired," Trump said in a tweet on Saturday afternoon, relishing the media storm whipped up by the firing.

"How many lies? How many leaks? Comey knew it all, and much more!"

The sense that McCabe's exit was about the Russia probe and not his own alleged ethical breach was compounded by his own extraordinary statement on Friday night.

"It is part of this administration's ongoing war on the FBI and the efforts of the special counsel investigation, which continue to this day," he wrote.

Dowd's call for an end to the Mueller investigation did nothing to quell such suggestions. He told CNN he was speaking just for himself, but earlier told The Daily Beast he was speaking on behalf of the President.

It's possible Dowd was leaning too far over his skis. But he could also have committed a classic Washington gaffe by accidentally revealing the true nature of Trump's feelings. It is beyond dispute meanwhile that the President is increasingly vexed by the Mueller probe and wants it over. And the least nefarious explanation of Dowd's comment is that the President's potential legal defense to any findings of wrongdoing by the Comey probe is in disarray, something that may worry his loyal supporters.

Old spies lash out

While the Dowd drama blew up, Comey and Brennan, liberated from the reticence required of a lifetime in the shadows, mounted a dual-pronged attack on Trump over the McCabe firing.

The former FBI director reminded the White House it has a public relations nightmare looming when his book comes out next month.

"Mr. President, the American people will hear my story very soon. And they can judge for themselves who is honorable and who is not," Comey tweeted.

Brennan issued what must surely be the most stunning assault on a sitting president by any former CIA director, in a direct reply to a Trump tweet that proclaimed the departure of McCabe "a great day for democracy."

"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," Brennan wrote, warning the President: "You will not destroy America ... America will triumph over you."

The-CNN-Wire

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