That's a backfire we are hearing

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Clumsy dismissal of Comey, followed by threat, should add fuel to investigation.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP may or may not technically have obstructed justice by firing former FBI Director James Comey in the midst of a serious investigation of potential Trump campaign ties to Russian hackers - and then threatening Comey in a tweet against speaking out about the matter - but he certainly skated right up to the edge.

The old adage seems to apply - if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck.

Neither is the administration's standard line defensible, like the one delivered Sunday by United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley: "The president is the CEO of the country. He can hire and fire whoever he wants."

AGAIN, TECHNICALLY and mostly true, although a president can't hire some people - Haley, to fill her job, for example - without the consent of the Senate. Presidents do have the authority to fire lots of people, including the director of the FBI or the acting attorney general or a U.S. attorney responsible for investigating Trump's dealings in New York City.

But having the authority doesn't mean the motive is irrelevant.

Trump himself - on at least two occasions as the Comey firestorm built - clearly stated the Russia investigation was on his mind in canning the guy in charge of the investigators.

The methodology of the firing also suggests intent to deliver a disrespectful blow. Comey was not terminated in person, as would be customary, or even notified before the dismissal was made public. Rather, a letter was delivered to the FBI in Washington while Comey was in Los Angeles speaking to a gathering of agents. He learned he'd been fired when attendees at the event saw it on TV.

Likewise, there was no mistaking Trump's hostile meaning in a subsequent tweet: "James Comey better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press."

FIRST OF ALL, that puts the question front and center whether recordings of conversations exist. If so, the country should hear them. Comey says he hopes there are tapes and they become public. Comey also offers to testify in public.

Congress should hand the White House a subpoena for any recordings.

Comey is no sainted martyr, by the way. While he has a long and distinguished career in government, his performance under pressure during the 2016 election last year leaves a lot of room for criticism. His departure will not be a national tragedy.

But that's not the issue at hand. This is about timing and motive. At the very least this raises serious suspicions and exudes a distinctly foul odor. The timid souls in Congress - the co-equal branch the Founders counted on to check executive overreach - must rise to the occasion, if any members are still capable, to find all the facts and uphold American values. They could start by taking Comey up on his offer to testify in public. They could move on to a truly independent, nonpartisan investigation.

IS THIS, AS some have suggested, a reprise of the Watergate scandal?

The answer to that question will not come quickly.

It is worth remembering, though, the bumbling Watergate burglars did not bring down President Nixon. He did that himself by reacting with cover-up, vengeance, lies and executive abuse.

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