Trump lashes out at Russia probe; Pence hires a lawyer – Washington Post

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A heightened sense of unease gripped the White House on Thursday, as President Trump lashed out at reports that he’s under scrutiny over whether he obstructed justice, aides repeatedly deflected questions about the probe and Vice President 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, whom an aide said Pence was paying for himself, was made public a day after The Washington Post reported that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III 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 that 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 after a shooting at a Republican congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Va., 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.

(Patrick Martin,McKenna Ewen/The Washington Post)

Before the day ended, the White House was hit with the latest in a cascade of headlines relating to the Russian probe: a 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 spoke on the condition of 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 about 20 minutes.

In keeping with a new practice, she referred one question after another to Trump’s personal lawyer.

Sanders, for example, was asked whether Trump still felt “vindicated” by the extraordinary congressional testimony last week by James B. 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 E. 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 to 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 repeated 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 attorneys 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 on Thursday, Russian election meddling and related issues were 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 that they were eager to put the probe behind them.

Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), 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.”

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