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[WASHINGTON] President Donald Trump responded angrily to reports he is under criminal investigation Thursday, deriding a "witch hunt" against him led by some "very bad" people.
Mr Trump responded to reports he is personally being investigated for obstruction of justice with a characteristic scorched earth defense: claiming mistreatment of historic proportions and calling into question the probity of his accusers.
"You are witnessing the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history - led by some very bad and conflicted people!" Mr Trump said, in an early morning tweet.
Mr Trump did not directly address the allegations that he is being probed for possibly obstructing justice - a potentially impeachable offence. Nor did he deny he has entered the miniscule ranks of sitting presidents who have become the subject of a criminal investigation.
"They made up a phony collusion with the Russians story, found zero proof, so now they go for obstruction of justice on the phony story. Nice," he wrote.
Mr Trump's young presidency has been battered by allegations - under investigation both by Congress and the FBI - that Russia interfered to sway the 2016 election in his favor, in possible collusion with Mr Trump's campaign team.
The FBI probe, now in the hands of special prosecutor Robert Mueller, shifted its focus to allegations of obstruction in the days after Mr Trump fired the agency's then director James Comey on May 9.
The new allegations against Trump center on his own admission that he fired Mr Comey because of the Russia investigation, and suggestions he asked several top intelligence officials for their help altering the direction of the inquiry.
The widened Russia probe could have far-reaching repercussions for Mr Trump's presidency, transforming his closest aides into witnesses and sucking yet more political oxygen out of the West Wing.
On Thursday an aide to Vice-President Mike Pence revealed he was hiring Richard Cullen - a veteran of the Iran-Contra investigation, Watergate and the 2000 vote recount in Florida - as a private lawyer.
The latest White House crisis struck on the evening of Mr Trump's 71st birthday, after a day in which he had won plaudits for his handling of the shooting of Republican Congressman Steve Scalise.
In an address to the country, Mr Trump struck a notably less partisan tone in response to his first major domestic crisis.
Ditching derogatory rhetoric about the Washington "swamp", Mr Trump rallied in support of his fellow politicians and called on the country to pull together.
"We may have our differences, but we do well, in times like these, to remember that everyone who serves in our nation's capital is here because, above all, they love our country," Mr Trump said.
Mr Trump's tweets virtually ensure that the political focus swings back to the Russia scandal.
'Inexcusable and illegal'
The president has long vehemently denied any collusion with Moscow, either by himself or his associates.
But as the legal rope has tightened, Mr Trump's allies have gone on the offensive, questioning the credibility of the special investigator Mr Mueller, a respected former FBI director who served under Republican president George W Bush.
Allies have even floated the idea that Mr Mueller may be fired.
On Wednesday, Mr Trump's lawyer Marc Kasowitz suggested - without providing evidence - that the FBI had leaked details of the criminal probe.
"The FBI leak of information regarding the President is outrageous, inexcusable and illegal," Mr Kasowitz said via a spokesman.
Mr Trump also trained his fire on one-time rival Hillary Clinton.
"Why is that Hillary Clintons family and Dems dealings with Russia are not looked at, but my non-dealings are?" he wrote.
"Crooked H destroyed phones w/ hammer, 'bleached' emails, & had husband meet w/AG days before she was cleared & they talk about obstruction?"
Several top intelligence officials have agreed to be interviewed by Mr Mueller's team, according to reports in both The Washington Post and New York Times.
The Post quoted five people briefed on the requests, saying those who agreed to be interviewed include national intelligence director Daniel Coats, Admiral Mike Rogers who heads the NSA, and his recently departed deputy, Richard Ledgett.
Mr Comey told Congress last week that before being sacked, Mr Trump pressured him to drop an investigation into his former national security adviser, Mike Flynn, who was forced to quit for lying about his links to Moscow.