Firing ‘nut job’ Comey took pressure off

President Donald Trump told Russian diplomats last week his firing of “nut job” James Comey had eased the pressure on him, even as the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation had moved into the White House.

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White House hopes that Trump could leave scandalous allegations at home were crushed in a one-two punch of revelations that landed shortly after his departure for the Middle East on Saturday

A Washington Post report, citing anonymous sources familiar with the matter, said a senior Trump adviser is now considered a “person of interest” in the investigation into whether Trump’s campaign associates co-ordinated with Russia in an effort to sway the 2016 election.

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And The New York Times reported that the president had told Russian officials he felt the dismissal of his FBI director had relieved “great pressure” on him.

The White House has said the firing was unrelated to the FBI’s Russia investigation.

Late on Friday, the Senate intelligence committee announced Comey had agreed to testify at an open hearing at an undetermined date after Memorial Day.

Comey will certainly be asked about encounters that precipitated his firing, including a January dinner in which, Comey has told associates, Trump asked for his loyalty.

In the Oval Office weeks later, Comey told associates, the president asked him to shut down an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Comey is known to produce memos documenting especially sensitive or unsettling encounters, such as after the February meeting.

He turned down an invitation to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The new headlines were a fresh indication Trump would not be able to change the subject from what appears to be an intensifying investigation reaching toward the president and his inner circle.

The White House repeated its assertion that a “thorough investigation will confirm that there was no collusion between the campaign and any foreign entity”.

Watch: US Democratic representative on Comey firing 0:00 Share

It did not deny the Times report that Trump was critical of Comey to the Russians the day after he fired him.

The Times reported Trump noted the Russia investigation as he told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak of his decision to fire Comey.

“I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job,” the Times reported that Trump said during the May 10 meeting. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

White House spokesman Sean Spicer called the president’s rhetoric part of his deal-making.

“By grandstanding and politicising the investigation into Russia’s actions, James Comey created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia,” Spicer said.

“The investigation would have always continued and obviously the termination of Comey would not have ended it.

Once again, the real story is that our national security has been undermined by the leaking of private and highly classified conversations.”

Trump says he plans to nominate a new FBI director soon but there was no announcement Friday.

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Sharks sign Dugan to play centre

Cronulla have pulled off one of the major recruitment coups of the season after signing St George Illawarra fullback Josh Dugan on a lucrative four-year deal from the 2018 NRL season.

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The Sharks on Saturday confirmed the prize signature of Dugan on a reported $3 million deal.

“Josh will bring quality and experience to our backline next year and, to sign the current Origin and Australian Test centre, is a major coup for the club and for our future,” Flanagan said.

“We have a number of exciting young backs coming through our grades and Josh’s experience will be invaluable in helping with their continued development.

“Josh has just turned 27 and I am confident his best football is still ahead of him.”

The Sharks’ signing ends a six-month standoff between Dugan and Dragons officials over whether he was worth the big money as a fullback, or a lesser paid centre.

Both Dugan and Dragons coach Paul McGregor insist that he is a fullback, while recruitment boss Ian Millward was adamant the club viewed him as a long-term three-quarter.

However Sharks coach Shane Flanagan suggested that Dugan, would play a mentoring role for current fullback Valentine Holmes.

“He is looking forward to being part of the development of players such as Val Holmes,” he said.

“As to where he might play for next year, quite simply he is the current Test right centre and who can also play fullback which is a bonus for our club.”

Sharks captain Paul Gallen had no doubt Dugan would be an asset for years to come.

“We are wrapped to have him. I’ve been lucky enough to play rep footy with Josh over the years and he is a good guy and an outstanding team player,” Gallen said.

“He is going to be an enormous boost to our team and Josh will be a great benefit to the club.”

Dugan has scored 53 tries in 144 NRL games in stints at Canberra and then St George Illawarra, and has played seven Tests for the Kangaroos and nine Origins for the Blues.

His exit from Wollongong means the Dragons will now be on the lookout for a new fullback, although the club does have young options in Matt Dufty and Jai Field.

Sydney beat Saints, continue AFL climb

Surging Sydney hammered out another warning that their AFL season isn’t over by dismantling St Kilda’s at Etihad Stadium.

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The hard-tackling Swans capitalised on the Saints’ spate of horrendous turnovers, particularly in the back half, to storm to a 18.10 (118) to 10.8 (68) win.

Swans coach John Longmire lauded his players’ application to effectively seal the win by early in the second half.

“We were really happy. There was a 15 minute patch in the third quarter that was as powerful, strong footy as we’ve played,” he said.

The Swans’ third consecutive victory after the 0-6 start to the season was built on collective pressure to stifle the Saints’ run and rebound, especially off half-back.

The Saints succumbed to relentless intensity to regularly cough up the ball that resulted in at least a dozen of the Swans’ goals.

“Just getting after them and the fierceness we want to get into our game was evident,” Longmire said.

“We like the tackles, but if they’re going to kick it under pressure, we like that, particularly a team that transfers the ball so well. We had pressure and speed in our forward half which is important for us.”

The Swans reaped the benefits of cleaner use of the ball, despite being beaten in the overall clearances, with an astonishing 12 players among the goalkickers.

Lance Franklin was the main contributor with four goals, admittedly, three of them in the last quarter when the contest was effectively over.

On the vast array of scoring options, Longmire said: “Not as pleased as I was with the pressure, but it normally goes hand-in-hand. If you get the pressure right, other things tend to flow a bit better.”

St Kilda paid a high price for the inability to contain or match Swans’ onballers, led by Dan Hannebery, with 30 possessions, Josh Kennedy (35) and Luke Parker (27).

While the Saints trailed by only 11 points at halftime, it seems they were just hanging in the contest. And the Swans blew it open with the ferocious attack on the ball at the restart.

The Swans specifically targeted in-form Saints onballer Jack Steven and returning young key forward Paddy McCartin with physical attention, even before the opening bounce.

Stevens just kept hunting the ball in the packs and used his breakaway speed to collect 27 possessions. McCartin worked hard but struggled after five games in the VFL and he kicked his only goal from a set shot with three minutes left on the game clock.

McCartin didn’t deserve to shoulder all the blame as St Kilda’s other tall targets, including Nick Riewoldt, scrounged only a handful of marks inside the forward 50 against Swans key defenders Heath Grundy and Lewis Melican.

McLaughlin extends Supercars run at Winton

Ford star Scott McLaughlin has claimed a third-straight win for the first time in his Supercars career with a commanding victory in Saturday’s 120km race at Winton.

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The flying New Zealander continued the form he showed in Perth, where he scooped back-to-back wins, to take out the weekend’s opening race in northeast Victoria.

“I’ve won two in a row but never three – it’s pretty special,” McLaughlin said.

After starting in pole position, McLaughlin was never headed, maintaining control throughout the race.

“I had confidence that I had the car underneath me to do that, but it takes a lot to win a race in this championship,” he said.

“We got pole, the start was good and then the stop by the boys was fantastic.”

Holden’s six-time series champion Jamie Whincup finished second after a tense battle with McLaughlin’s DJR Team Penske teammate Fabian Coulthard who was third.

Whincup said McLaughlin and Coulthard had a speed advantage, but was confident his Red Bull Racing team could turn it around.

“It’s nice to just go hard the whole race; it’s almost like GT racing,” Whincup said.

“Instead of nurturing it and just trying to make the tyres survive, we were just flat stick from start to finish.

“We got the most points we could today but we certainly need more speed to go one better.”

The win catapulted McLaughlin to second on the Supercars leaderboard, 10 points adrift of Coulthard.

“It’s great to have Fabs up there too and we’re pushing each other so hard,” McLaughlin said.

“As a team, we’re working together, we’re trying different things and I guess the rewards come.

“But we’ve got to keep on our toes – it’s going to be a big fight all the way.”

Walkinshaw Racing’s James Courtney had a tumultuous race, recovering from going off the track shortly after the start only to make contact with Nick Percat on the final lap to end his day in the gravel.

Chaz Mostert, who started from second on the grid, was shattered after withdrawing with a mechanical issue on the 15th lap.

“I feel sorry for the boys. It’s upsetting for the team to go out with a mechanical issue,” Mostert said.

Qualifying for Sunday’s 67-lap race kicks off at 11:00am, with the main event at 1:45pm.

Iranians deliver emphatic win for Rouhani

Iranians yearning for more freedom at home and less isolation abroad have emphatically re-elected President Hassan Rouhani.

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State television congratulated Rouhani on his victory early Saturday afternoon.

The architect of Iran’s still-fragile detente with the West, he led with 58.6 per cent of the vote, compared with 39.8 per cent for his main challenger, hardline judge Ebrahim Raisi, according to near-complete results.

Although the powers of the elected president are limited by those of unelected Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who outranks him, the scale of Rouhani’s victory gives the pro-reform camp a strong mandate.

Raisi is a protege of Khamenei and was tipped in Iranian media as a potential successor for the 77-year-old supreme leader who has been in power since 1989.

The re-election will likely safeguard the nuclear agreement Rouhani’s government reached with global powers in 2015, under which most international sanctions have been lifted in return for Iran curbing its nuclear program.

And it delivers a setback to the Revolutionary Guards, the powerful security force which controls a vast industrial empire in Iran. They had thrown their support behind Raisi to safeguard its interests.

“I am very happy for Rouhani’s win. We won. We did not yield to pressure. We showed them that we still exist,” said 37-year-old reformist voter Mahnaz.

“I want Rouhani to carry out his promises.”

Nevertheless, Rouhani stills faces the restrictions on his ability to transform Iran that prevented him delivering substantial social change in his first term and thwarted the reforms of predecessor Mohammad Khatami.

The supreme leader has veto power over all policies and ultimate control of the security forces.

Rouhani has been unable to secure the release of reformist leaders from house arrest, and media are barred from publishing the words or images of his reformist predecessor Khatami.

“The last two decades of presidential elections have been short days of euphoria followed by long years of disillusionment,” said Karim Sadjadpour, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment who focuses on Iran.

“Democracy in Iran is allowed to bloom only a few days every four years, while autocracy is evergreen.”

The re-elected president will also have to navigate a tricky relationship with Washington, which appears at best ambivalent about the nuclear accord signed by former US president Barack Obama.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly described it as “one of the worst deals ever signed”.

Rouhani, known for decades as a mild-mannered member of the establishment, campaigned as an ardent reformist to stir up the passions of young, urban voters yearning for change.

At times he crossed traditional rhetorical boundaries, openly attacking the human rights record of the security forces and the judiciary.

During one rally he referred to hardliners as “those who cut out tongues and sewed mouths shut”.

Saturday’s big turnout appeared to have favoured Rouhani, whose backers’ main concern had been apathy among reformist-leaning voters disappointed with the slow pace of change.