A heightened sense of unease gripped the White House on Thursday, as President Donald Trump lashed out at reports he’s under scrutiny for obstructing justice, aides repeatedly deflected questions about the probe and Vice President Mike Pence acknowledged hiring a private lawyer to handle fallout from investigations into Russian election meddling.
Pence’s decision to hire Richard Cullen, a Richmond-based lawyer who previously served as a U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia, came less than a month after Trump hired his own private lawyer.
The hiring of Cullen was made public a day after The Washington Post reported that special counsel Robert Mueller is widening his investigation to examine whether the president attempted to obstruct justice.
A defiant Trump at multiple points Thursday expressed his frustration with reports about that development, tweeting he is the subject of “the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history,” and one that he said is being led by “some very bad and conflicted people.”
Trump, who only a day earlier had called for a more civil tone in Washington following shootings at a Republican congressional baseball practice, fired off several more tweets in the afternoon voicing disbelief that he was under scrutiny while his “crooked” Democratic opponent in last year’s election, Hillary Clinton, escaped prosecution in relation to her use of a private email server while secretary of state.
Before the day ended, the White House was hit with the latest in a series of cascading headlines relating to the Russian probe: a Washington Post story reporting that Mueller is investigating the finances and business dealings of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-law and adviser.
“The legal jeopardy increases by the day,” said one informal Trump adviser, who requested anonymity to discuss conversations with White House aides more freely. “If you’re a White House staffer, you’re trying to do your best to keep your head low and do your job.”
At the White House on Thursday, aides sought to portray a sense of normalcy, staging an elaborate event to promote a Trump job-training initiative, while simultaneously going into lockdown mode regarding Mueller’s probe.
At a previously scheduled off-camera briefing for reporters, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the principal deputy White House press secretary, was peppered with more than a dozen questions about ongoing investigations over the course of about 20 minutes. In keeping with a new practice, she referred one after another to Trump’s personal lawyer.
Sanders, for example, was asked if Trump still felt “vindicated” by the extraordinary congressional testimony last week by James Comey, the FBI director whose firing by Trump has contributed to questions about whether the president obstructed justice.
“I believe so,” Sanders said, before referring reporters to Marc Kasowitz, Trump’s private attorney.
As Trump’s No. 2 and as head of the transition team, Pence has increasingly found himself drawn into the widening Russia investigation.
Pence – along with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Kushner, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and White House Counsel Donald McGahn – was one of the small group of senior advisers the president consulted as he mulled his decision to fire Comey, which is now a focus of Mueller’s investigation.
He also was entangled in the events leading up the dismissal of Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, who originally misled Pence about his contact with Russian officials – incorrect claims that Pence himself then repeatedly publicly.
The vice president was kept in the dark for nearly two weeks about Flynn’s misstatements, before learning the truth in a Post report. Trump ultimately fired Flynn for misleading the vice president.
There were also news reports that Flynn’s lawyers had alerted Trump’s transition team, which Pence led, that Flynn was under federal investigation for his secret ties to the Turkish government as a paid lobbyist – a claim the White House disputes. And aides to Pence, who was running the transition team, said the vice president was never informed of Flynn’s overseas work with Turkey, either.
On Capitol Hill Thursday, Russian election meddling and related issues were also a prominent part of the agenda.
Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats spent more than three hours in a closed session with the Senate Intelligence Committee, just days after he refused to answer lawmakers’ questions in an open session about his conversations with Trump regarding the Russia investigation.
Several GOP lawmakers said they think Mueller should be able to do his job – including probing possible obstruction by Trump – but added they were eager to put the probe behind them.
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas, the second-ranking Senate Republican, said he retains confidence in Mueller and that he’s seen nothing so far that would amount to obstruction by Trump. His assessment, Cornyn said, includes the testimony last week by Comey, who said he presumed he was fired because of Trump’s concerns about the FBI’s handling of the Russian probe.
“I think based on what he said then, there doesn’t appear to be any there there,” Cornyn said. “Director Mueller’s got extensive staff and authorities to investigate further. But based on what we know now, I don’t see any basis.”
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said he didn’t find news that Mueller is exploring obstruction of justice particularly surprising given it’s clear he is “going to look at everything.”
“There has been a lot of time spent on the collusion issue – 11 months by the FBI and six months by Congress – and both sides agree they haven’t found anything there,” Thune said. “I hope at some point all this stuff will lead to an ultimate conclusion, and we’ll put this to rest.”
In the meantime, the Republican Natinal Committee appears to be girding for a fight.
A series of “talking points” sent Wednesday night to Trump allies provided a road map for trying to undercut the significance of the latest revelation related to possible obstruction of justice.
“This apparent pivot by the investigative team shows that they have struck out on trying to prove collusion and are now trying to switch to another baseless charge,” the document said.
The RNC also encouraged Trump allies to decry the “inexcusable, outrageous, and illegal” leaks on which it said the story was based and to argue that there is a double-standard at work.
The document said there was “an obvious case” of obstruction that was never investigated against former Attorney General Loretta Lynch related to the FBI investigation of Clinton’s email server.
In his afternoon tweets, Trump picked up on that argument. In one tweet, the president wrote: “Crooked H destroyed phones w/ hammer, ‘bleached’ emails, & had husband meet w/AG days before she was cleared- & they talk about obstruction?”
“Why is that Hillary Clintons family and Dems dealings with Russia are not looked at, but my non-dealings are?” Trump said in another.
Trump restricted his musing Thursday on Mueller’s investigation to social media, passing on opportunities to talk about it in public.
The president did not respond to shouted questions about whether he believes he is under investigation as he departed an event Tuesday morning designed to highlight his administration’s support of apprenticeship programs.
That event was part of a schedule that suggested no outward signs of concern by Trump about his latest troubles.
He was joined at the apprenticeship event by several governors, lawmakers and other dignitaries. Before turning to the subject at hand, Trump provided an update on the condition of Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., who was shot Wednesday during the attack on Republican lawmakers at an early morning baseball practice.
Attempting to strike a unifying chord, Trump said: “Steve, in his own way, may have brought some unity to our long-divided country,”
Later in the afternoon, Trump and the first lady traveled to the Supreme Court for the investiture ceremony for Justice Neil Gorsuch.
Among the questions Sanders deflected Thursday was to whom exactly Trump was referring to as “bad and conflicted people” in one of his early morning tweets.
“Again, I would refer you to the president’s outside counsel on all questions relating to the investigation,” Sanders said.
Mark Corallo, a spokesman for the outside counsel, did not respond to an email and phone call seeking comment on the questions Sanders referred to him.
Earlier this week, one of the president’s sons, Donald Trump Jr., highlighted on Twitter an op-ed in USA Today that argued that Mueller should recuse himself from the Russia investigation because he has a potential conflict of interest, given his longtime friendship with Comey, a crucial witness.
The piece, which Donald Trump Jr. retweeted, was written by William G. Otis, an adjunct law professor and Georgetown University and a former special counsel for then-President George H.W. Bush.
Christopher Ruddy, a friend of Trump’s, made headlines earlier this week when he said during a PBS interview that he believed Trump was considering firing Mueller.
The White House didn’t immediately deny that notion but made clear that Ruddy was not speaking for Trump. The following day, Sanders said Trump had no intention of trying to dislodge Mueller.
Sanders was asked again Thursday if Trump still has confidence in Mueller.
“I believe so,” she said, later adding: “I haven’t had a specific conversation about that, but I think if he didn’t, he would probably have intentions to make a change, and he certainly doesn’t.
The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe, Karoun Demirjian and Abby Phillip contributed to this report.