A heightened sense of unease gripped the White House on Thursday, as President 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.

Cullen’s hiring 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 after 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.”

LOCKDOWN MODE

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 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.

CAPITOL HILL REACTION

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 on 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 Republican 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.”

TALKING POINTS

In the meantime, the Republican National 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.