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Trump goes on offensive in Russia probe with new ‘wartime consiglieres’

President Donald Trump is shifting to war footing in the Russia investigation.

On Wednesday, the White House announced that it had hired a veteran lawyer who helped President Bill Clinton weather impeachment, while Trump’s personal legal team sent its strongest signal yet that it would fight special counsel Robert Mueller over any attempt to question the president without first setting up strict limits for the interview.

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Combined, the two moves represent a sharp turn away from the cooperation-minded days of 2017 when Trump said publicly that he was eager to sit down with the lead Russia investigator. At that time, his White House lawyers also showed no resistance to handing over documents and assisted in lining up interviews with more than two dozen current and former aides.

Now, amid the prospect of a widening Mueller inquiry that has already ensnared several top Trump aides, along with a potential Democratic wave in the November midterm elections that could give way to impeachment proceedings, Trump and his lawyers are showing signs that they intend to fight back.

Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor who is now the president’s new personal attorney, told The Washington Post that the president and his White House needed a “more aggressive” approach when dealing with the special counsel’s attempts to line up a Trump interview.

“Some people have talked about a possible 12-hour interview,” Giuliani said, adding: “That’s not going to happen — I’ll tell you that. It’d be, max, two to three hours around a narrow set of questions.”

The president himself also previewed the legal arguments his attorneys could make in opposition to sitting down with Mueller.

Writing on Twitter, Trump posted several partial quotes from Joe diGenova, the former federal prosecutor who nearly joined his personal legal team earlier this spring and had argued in a recent radio interview that the president had the “unfettered power to fire anyone.”

DiGenova, whose comments were rebroadcast on Tuesday night on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program, a show the president is known to watch, also said that a series of questions purported to come from Mueller’s office were an “intrusion” on the president’s constitutional right to “fire any executive branch employee.”

Mueller’s office has repeatedly declined comment about a potential Trump interview, which is widely seen as one of the final moves the special counsel will make in giving the president an opportunity to explain in his own words his reasons for firing FBI Director James Comey last May, as well as what he knew about Russia’s attempts to help him win the 2016 election. That information could go a long way for the special counsel as he weighs making landmark decisions, such as whether to indict a sitting president, or when he writes a final report that could be used to launch impeachment proceedings in Congress.

But Trump’s legal team is now sending signals that it is prepared to fight if Mueller issues a subpoena, a topic The Washington Post reported on Tuesday was actually broached by the special counsel back in March. Increasingly, Trump’s team appears willing to have that all-out legal fight with Mueller, even if it lasts months while it winds its way to the Supreme Court.

Donald Trump

“I think he’s going to pursue his legal options,” said Alan Dershowitz, the retired Harvard law professor who recently met with Trump and his staffers at the White House. “That’s why he enhanced his legal team. He wants to be ready for all contingencies.”

Trump’s more aggressive posture was also reflected on Wednesday with the retirement of Ty Cobb, the embattled White House lawyer who since last fall has been angering conservatives and the president’s allies by suggesting that the Russia investigation could be brought to a close through cooperation with Mueller.

Cobb, whose departure had been expected, was frequently called in for clean-up duty by putting his name on public statements insisting that the president had no plans to fire the special counsel even as Trump was making private pleadings to do just that. Now he’s being replaced by Emmet Flood, a defense lawyer who helped Clinton during his cutthroat 1998-99 impeachment battle in Congress and later served under George W. Bush as the Republican president faced an onslaught of congressional-oversight investigations after Democrats won control of Congress in the 2006 midterms.

Flood brings to Trump’s White House a reputation as a seasoned lawyer known for being assertive, and occasionally combative. His background in battles over executive privilege is also likely to be one of the central lines of any legal battles with Mueller and Congress if either the House of Senate ends up in Democratic control.

“He knows how to advance the interests of the president even in a chaotic situation,” said Shannen Coffin, a former counsel to Vice President Dick Cheney who worked with Flood in the Bush White House. “You have to say that when we lost control of the House and Senate in 2006, it was sort of the worst nightmare of any administration. He was the point guy on all of that.”

“He’s a Williams & Connolly lawyer,” Coffin added, referring to one of the nation’s top litigation firms. “They’re aggressive. …That’s what he was trained in. I’ve seen that side of Emmet. It’s not personal. He’s a man who has a passion for what he’s doing.”

Elliot Mincberg, a former Democratic counsel on the House Judiciary Committee who squared off against Flood during the Bush-era investigations into the firing of U.S. attorneys, said Flood was rarely accommodating.

“He was a very strong, some would say stubborn, defender of executive prerogative there,” Mincberg said. “Very smart guy. Very able, but he really was not willing to give an inch in terms of negotiation.”

The Trump White House’s decision to hire Flood reflects a decision not just to deal aggressively with Mueller. It also looks as though the administration is bracing for an impeachment fight.

“I’m sure they have an eye on both,” said Scott Coffina, a former Flood colleague from the Bush White House. “They have to have an eye on impeachment. They’d be foolish not to have an eye on that, and Emmet would be a very good guy to deal with that.”

Mueller is approaching the one-year anniversary leading the Russia investigation as special counsel. He faces no deadlines for completing his work — a point of frustration to the White House and allies who have been clamoring for any signal that the president is going to be cleared of legal wrongdoing.

“I think there’s a reasonable argument to make that there are so many things on the plate of the president of the United States that after a year it’s time to bring this to an end,” said Jon Sale, a former federal prosecutor who had dinner with Giuliani, his former law school classmate, last weekend in New York.

Robert Mueller is pictured. | Getty Images

Steve Bannon, the former senior Trump White House strategist and 2016 campaign manager, called Giuliani and Flood the new “wartime consiglieres” around the president.

“This doesn’t mean obstruction — just tough lawyers up against tough lawyers,” Bannon said in a text message. A frequent critic of Cobb’s conciliatory approach, Bannon added that Trump was “finally getting the first-rate representation that has been missing to date for him as an individual and the office of the presidency.“

But Samuel Buell, a Duke University law professor and former federal prosecutor, said the Trump team’s push for a more aggressive pushback wouldn’t faze Mueller.

“Once they are onto something, federal criminal investigations have a way of inexorably grinding the gears and the momentum is almost impossible to stop,” Buell said. “The defense in such cases turns, at a certain point, to trench warfare.“

“We may have reached the stage where even this White House is coming to recognize that reality,“ he added, “in spite of the president’s public pronouncements.”

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