Giuliani wants limits for Trump interview in Russia probe

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(Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump’s new chief lawyer said on Thursday that if his client agrees to an interview with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, it should be limited to a few hours and focus on Russian tampering in the 2016 election.

FILE PHOTO: Special Counsel Robert Mueller departs after briefing the U.S. House Intelligence Committee on his investigation of potential collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., June 20, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

Asked what questions might be appropriate, the lawyer Rudy Giuliani, a former New York mayor, suggested two to Reuters: “Was there some agreement with the Russians? Was there any meeting of Trump with the Russians?”

A former federal prosecutor, Giuliani said he was the president’s new chief counsel in the Russia investigation but that he would also keep an eye on a U.S. inquiry into a $130,000 hush payment by longtime Trump attorney Michael Cohen to a porn star who said she had a 2006 sexual encounter with Trump.

Giuliani said he wanted any Trump interview with Mueller to be limited in time and scope, suggesting for only 2-1/2 hours and not under oath.

In addition to the Russia questions, Giuliani said investigators could ask about possible obstruction of justice related to Trump’s firing a year ago of then-FBI Director James Comey.

The two sides have been negotiating the terms of a possible interview for months, including topics Mueller might pursue as part of a nearly year-old inquiry into possible collusion between Moscow and Trump’s presidential campaign.

The Kremlin has denied assertions by U.S. intelligence agencies that it meddled in the election. Trump has denied any collusion and has described the investigation as a political witch hunt.

FILE PHOTO: Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani speaks to members of the media as he attends the funeral service for U.S. evangelist Billy Graham at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina, U.S., March 2, 2018. REUTERS/Chris Keane

Giuliani, who joined Trump’s legal team last month, said they were trying to figure out whether it was a good idea for Trump to voluntarily submit to an interview.

“Are they trying to trap him?” Giuliani asked. He said Trump’s legal team expected to make a decision in two or three weeks. “We want to get it over with,” he said.

Giuliani said Trump had used retainer fees starting in 2017 to reimburse Cohen for the $130,000 Cohen paid the porn star, Stormy Daniels, in the closing weeks of the November 2016 election.

Trump wrote in a tweet on Thursday that Cohen was not paid using campaign funds. The payment was part of a “private agreement” that involved money that had “nothing to do with the campaign,” Trump said.

He said the payment was aimed at stopping “false and extortionist accusations” Daniels made about a sexual encounter with Trump. Trump acknowledged a non-disclosure agreement with her to secure her silence. He denied they had an affair.

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The president had previously told reporters he did not know about the payment Cohen made to Daniels.

The investigation of Cohen is an offshoot of Mueller’s probe.

The claim of repayment is significant because a payment by Cohen could be seen as an illegal campaign contribution. Trump as candidate would have been permitted to make unlimited personal contributions to his own campaign.

But legal watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) said it was asking the Department of Justice and Office of Government Ethics to investigate whether Trump made an illegal false statement by not including the $130,000 payment in his personal financial disclosures.

The group said Trump was legally required to disclose any liability in excess of $10,000.

Other legal experts said the payment may not qualify as the sort of financial obligation Trump would have been required to disclose.

Peter Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University, said that while prosecutions for making false statements to the government are common, they are rarely based on an omission on a financial disclosure form.

“I don’t see this becoming a case,” he said.

Reporting by Karen Freifeld and Susan Heavey; Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, Makini Brice and Jan Wolfe; editing by Grant McCool and Howard Goller

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