THE MEMO: Trump deals with gravest crisis yet

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: Meetings on potential North Korea summit going 'very well' Freed American 'overwhelmed with gratitude' after being released from Venezuela Ivanka Trump to campaign for Devin Nunes in California MORE is grappling with the gravest controversy of his presidency as the storm kicked up by his firing of FBI Director James Comey rumbles on.

An atmosphere of crisis enveloped Washington in the first full day after the firing, which was announced Tuesday. 

Cable news shows were thick with talk of a constitutional crisis and comparisons to the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s that brought down President Richard Nixon.

On Capitol Hill, the fissures in the Republican Party over the episode were plain, with some prominent GOP lawmakers hitting Trump’s actions and others backing him up. Democrats, meanwhile, were united — and calling for the appointment of a special prosecutor to further investigate potential links between Trump’s 2016 campaign associates and Russia.

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The minority party also began to slow Senate proceedings to a crawl in protest of the president’s actions. 

And the early evening, it emerged that the Senate Intelligence Committee had issued a subpoena for Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn. The subpoena requested “documents relevant to the Committee’s investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 election.”

Trump, never inclined to de-escalate, instead turned the temperature up even more via his Twitter account. 

He attacked one Democratic critic, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), for his past misstatements about his service during the Vietnam War.

Trump lambasted Democrats more generally as “phony hypocrites,” a reference to the criticisms many Democrats had aimed at Comey over his handling of the investigation last year into Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump lashes out at 'rigged' Russia probe in pair of tweets Clapper: 'More and more' of Steele dossier proving to be true Republicans are strongly positioned to win Congress in November MORE’s use of a private email server for government business.

Several surreal moments only heightened the tense atmosphere. Trump, having been criticized by opponents as “Nixonian,” chose to meet with that former president’s secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, in the Oval Office.

Trump also met with Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov and the Kremlin’s ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak. Kislyak is the central figure in the furor that led to Trump firing Flynn in February.

Photos of Trump, Lavrov and Kislyak were disseminated by a Russian state-owned news agency, Tass, which was apparently allowed into a meeting that was closed to the American media.

Meanwhile, CBS News secured a brief interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was dressed in a full hockey uniform at a Sochi ice rink. “We have nothing to do with” the firing of Comey, Putin said, adding that the episode would have “no effect” on U.S.-Russia relations. 

At a more substantive level, confusion clouds some central elements of the story that the Trump administration is trying to tell. 

One issue is when, precisely, Trump lost confidence in Comey. Another is what motivated Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to write a memo suggesting that Comey should be removed.

The White House’s media briefing room was packed on Wednesday afternoon as spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders articulated the official line on those questions.

Sanders said that Trump had “over the last several months” lost confidence in Comey. But a glaring apparent contradiction has not been resolved: why Comey was ostensibly fired for being unfair to Clinton just a week after Trump tweeted that the FBI director had been too lenient on the former secretary of State.  

Sanders also asserted that Rosenstein had made his views of Comey clear, unbidden, in a meeting with Trump, who had then suggested he put his thoughts in writing. Once that had been done, the president moved promptly to fire Comey. 

When asked by Hallie Jackson of NBC News whether Rosenstein had decided “on his own” to review Comey’s performance, Sanders replied, “Absolutely.”

But at times,  the administration seemed itself to be caught up in the chaos. 

A Washington Post report on Wednesday morning detailed how, the previous evening, White House press secretary Sean Spicer had given a late interview to the Fox Business Network on the White House grounds “and then disappeared into the shadows, huddling with his staff behind a tall hedge.” 

The press secretary had then emerged to talk to other reporters, but only on the condition that the TV camera lights were turned off.

The same story asserted that Spicer and his staff spent more than three hours on Tuesday evening “scrambling” to answer the question of why Trump had fired Comey.

The Comey furor, and the way it has been handled by the White House, has given new ammunition to opponents of the president — not all of them liberals or Democrats.

Trump “could not have done it in a more ham-handed fashion, even if you are among those who believe Comey merited dismissal,” said John “Mac” Stipanovich, a veteran GOP operative in Florida and a long-standing Trump critic.

Stipanovich complained that the current administration is “the gang that can’t shoot straight,” a problem he attributed to a combination of Trump’s impulsiveness and his belief that White House aides are “too deferential to the boss.”

Trump allies dispute those charges, as well as the broader argument that the president may be seeking to frustrate an investigation.

Sam Nunberg, an adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign, suggested that the blame for the FBI director’s firing should be laid at Comey’s own door. “James Comey did this to James Comey,” Nunberg said.

At the press briefing, Sanders pushed back against suggestions that Trump was working to frustrate any probe, asserting that “any investigation that was happening on Monday is still happening today.” 

That argument will cut no ice with some Democratic lawmakers, who are already raising the prospect of impeachment — as Reps. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) and Mark PocanMark William PocanOvernight Defense: Over 500 amendments proposed for defense bill | Measures address transgender troops, Yemen war | Trump taps acting VA chief as permanent secretary Lawmakers seek to limit US involvement in Yemen's civil war The curious case of Andrew McCabe's legal defense fund MORE (D-Wis.) did Wednesday — nor with the progressive activists who rallied outside the White House to protest Trump’s actions.

By Wednesday evening, the number of Republican senators who had expressed concern or criticism over the president’s actions had grown to 12, according to The Hill’s count. 

If that chorus grows in number or intensity, it will spell even deeper trouble for Trump.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.