Trump Turns More Aggressive on Mueller Probe as Cobb Departs

(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump signaled a more aggressive posture toward Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation as the president rid his legal team of its most determined advocate of cooperation with the Russia probe.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who joined Trump’s legal team last month, said Thursday that the president’s lawyers would restrict Mueller’s access to him. He said that if Trump’s lawyers consent to an interview at all, Mueller would get no more than 2.5 hours with the president.

“Tough luck” if Mueller’s team doesn’t like the parameters, Giuliani said on Fox News “Fox & Friends.” “These are the cards that have been dealt.”

White House lawyer Ty Cobb, who will leave at the end of the month, was one of the few at Trump’s side urging the president to refrain from personally attacking Mueller and to comply with the prosecutor’s requests. His replacement, Emmet Flood, who assisted in President Bill Clinton’s impeachment defense and President George W. Bush’s response to politically charged congressional inquiries, brings experience asserting constitutional prerogatives to fend off investigative demands.

Trump Turns More Aggressive on Mueller Probe as Cobb Departs

Giuliani has been a frequent and vociferous critic of former FBI Director James Comey, whose firing by Trump makes him a key figure in any obstruction of justice investigation. He said Thursday that “the basis of the case is dead” and that Attorney General Jeff Sessions should “step in” to end Mueller’s probe.

“What they’re really trying to do is trap him into collusion,” Giuliani said of Mueller’s request to interview Trump. “They’re going to have to convince us.”

Giuliani also signaled his assertive new role by disclosing for the first time Wednesday that Trump reimbursed his personal lawyer Michael Cohen for a $130,000 hush payment to porn film actress Stormy Daniels during the 2016 presidential campaign. Trump said in tweets on Thursday that the money was paid through“a monthly retainer” and described the claims he had an affair with Daniels as “false and extortionist accusations.”

Giuliani said Thursday that the FBI’s search of Cohen’s home and office last month and the leak of Mueller’s prospective questions for Trump to the New York Times earlier this week have dampened enthusiasm on Trump’s team for the president to sit for an interview. While the Times reported that the leak didn’t come from Trump’s legal team, it didn’t rule out the possibility that it came from people close to or affiliated with it, rather than from Mueller’s team.

Hours before Cobb’s departure was made public, Trump suggested he might use his executive authority to intervene in a fight over Justice Department documents sought by House Republican critics of the probe. “At some point I will have no choice but to use the powers granted to the Presidency and get involved!” he tweeted on Wednesday.

Trump is moving closer to a confrontation with Mueller as talks with investigators reach a critical point. His lawyers are trying to negotiate terms of an interview between Mueller and Trump, an effort that was complicated by the leak of proposed questions.

Court Confrontation?

Mueller told Trump’s lawyers in March that if they didn’t agree to an interview he would consider issuing a subpoena compelling Trump to appear before a grand jury. That could trigger a court battle over executive privilege if Trump responds by refusing to answer investigators’ questions.

Trump Turns More Aggressive on Mueller Probe as Cobb Departs

Trump’s lawyers have said they are continuing to cooperate with Mueller’s team as they work to negotiate the terms of an interview. Giuliani said Wednesday the president’s legal team is still considering a voluntary interview with Mueller -- provided the lawyers feel the questions are fair and limited in scope.

“We would be inclined to do it,” Giuliani said of a potential interview, which could touch on Trump’s firing of Comey. “But if we came to the conclusion they have already made up their mind and Comey is telling the truth -- that is a joke, Comey hasn’t told the truth in years -- then we would just be leading him into the lion’s den.”

Moderating Force

Cobb had been a major advocate in the White House for Trump to sit for an interview while many of those close to Trump, including his former lawyer John Dowd, warned against it. Cobb argued that Trump had nothing to hide and it was the quickest way to clear his name. Those opposed worried Trump would put himself in legal jeopardy by making false statements to investigators.

Inside the White House, Cobb also acted as a moderating force on issues concerning the Justice Department. He spoke to Trump almost daily on a range of matters. While his advice wasn’t always taken, Cobb repeatedly warned Trump to pull his punches and keep quiet on matters relating to the Justice Department and the investigation.

Cobb had told White House Chief of Staff John Kelly several weeks ago that he was interested in stepping back from his role as the lead lawyer within the White House handling requests from Mueller, but the timing of his replacement took some by surprise. The New York Times reported in March that Trump was talking to Flood about a potential role.

Flood’s Role

It’s unclear whether Flood will take the same approach or have the same rapport with Trump. While Flood’s views on how to handle the Russia probe aren’t clear, he brings vast experience in the very specialized legal niche of defending a president. Flood didn’t immediately respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment.

Trump has been growing increasingly combative toward Mueller since March, when investigators raised the possibility of a grand jury subpoena. Trump’s frustration with the investigation was further fueled when the home and office of his longtime lawyer Cohen were raided, which enraged Trump and caused him to openly discuss firing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the Mueller probe.

Allies Attack

While Trump’s anger was eased some by an assurance from Rosenstein that he wasn’t a target of the Russia or Cohen investigations, the president’s attacks on the Justice Department have continued. His reference to intervening was taken by Democrats as a threat to fire Rosenstein, whose replacement would have the power to oust Mueller or rein in the scope of his investigation.

“Mr. President, the powers of the Presidency do not give you the right to interfere with or shut down the Russia investigation,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said in a tweet. “Firing the Deputy AG or Director Mueller would create a constitutional crisis.”

House Republicans allied with Trump have been ramping up attacks on Rosenstein. House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows and some other members of the group have drafted proposed articles of impeachment against Rosenstein. Meadows is one of Trump’s closest allies in Congress and talks to him by phone several times a week. Rosenstein responded Tuesday, calling threats against the Justice Department extortion.

Despite Trump’s rhetoric attacking the investigation that he often calls a “witch hunt,” his lawyers and Mueller’s team have maintained a respectful, professional relationship behind the scenes. The two sides regularly talked, and Cobb had convinced Trump that the quickest way to resolve the probe was to cooperate and keep tensions low, encouraging him to waive executive privilege on interviews with dozens of White House staffers and thousands of pages of documents.

Trump has previously said he’d like to sit down with Mueller but he’d defer to the advice of his lawyers.

List of Questions

Earlier this week, the Times published a list of more than 40 questions it said that Mueller’s team wanted the president to answer. The questions focused on conversations between the Russian government and his campaign, as well as actions Trump took related to possible obstruction of justice.

“These are all questions intended to trap him,” Giuliani said Wednesday night in an interview with Fox News. “Every lawyer in America thinks he shouldn’t” grant an interview.

In the interview with Sean Hannity, Giuliani said Cohen paid money to Daniels. the porn actress, by funneling it “through the law firm, and then the president repaid it.” Last month, Trump denied knowing about the payment to Daniels to stay silent about an alleged affair with him.

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