Trump lawyer Giuliani says US President may defy subpoena issued by Russia probe special counsel Mueller

A file photo of US President Donald Trump with Mr Rudy Giuliani at the new Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC, on Sept 16, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Mr Rudy Giuliani, reeling after a chaotic first week as President Donald Trump's lawyer, tried again on Sunday (May 6) to straighten out his client's story.

But Mr Giuliani raised new questions about whether Mr Trump had paid hush money to other women and suggested the President might invoke the Fifth Amendment to avoid testifying in the special counsel's Russia investigation.

Mr Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor and New York City mayor hired by Mr Trump to smooth communication between the White House and the special counsel, Mr Robert Mueller, instead painted Mr Mueller as an out-of-control prosecutor bent on trapping Mr Trump into committing perjury.

The President, he said, could defy a subpoena to testify.

"We don't have to," Mr Giuliani said in a rambling interview on ABC's This Week programme. "He's the president of the United States. We can assert the same privileges other presidents have."

Mr Giuliani, who met with the special counsel's office shortly after joining the legal team last month, said he and another lawyer, Mr Jay Sekulow, agreed that the President should not speak to Mr Mueller.

But he acknowledged that he had little control over the President, who said as recently as Friday that he still wanted to speak to the special counsel.

"How can I ever be confident of that?" Mr Giuliani said, when asked whether Mr Trump would not invoke his right to avoid self-incrimination.

"I'm facing a situation with the President and all the other lawyers are, in which every lawyer in America thinks he would be a fool to testify, I've got a client who wants to testify."

It was one of several startling admissions by Mr Giuliani, during his first extended television appearance since Mr Trump criticised him last week for not having his "facts straight" about payments made to a pornographic film actress, Ms Stephanie Clifford.

Mr Giuliani said it was possible that Mr Trump's personal attorney, Mr Michael Cohen, had made additional payments to other women on the President's behalf.

"I have no knowledge of that," Mr Giuliani said when asked about other payments, "but I would think if it was necessary, yes."

After his interview, Mr Giuliani met with Mr Trump at his golf club in Northern Virginia.

If Mr Trump were to invoke the Fifth Amendment, he would undercut his longstanding claim that he has nothing to hide about his campaign's ties to Russia.

During the presidential campaign, he ridiculed his Democratic opponent, Mrs Hillary Clinton, when some of her aides invoked the Fifth Amendment during a congressional investigation of Mrs Clinton's use of a private e-mail server.

"The mob takes the Fifth," Mr Trump said at a campaign rally in Iowa in September 2016. "If you're innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment?"

Mr Giuliani told the ABC anchor, Mr George Stephanopoulos, that he was still getting up to speed on Mr Trump's legal issues - a fact that became apparent as the interview went on.

As was the case during his interviews last week, Mr Giuliani seemed to speak largely off the cuff. He speculated freely and contradicted himself, sometimes from one statement to the next.

He said, for example, that Mr Mueller would be to blame if Mr Trump refused to testify because his office had leaked a list of questions that the special counsel would like to ask him.

But then he admitted he did not know who leaked the questions, which were reported by The New York Times.

Mr Giuliani referred repeatedly to a federal judge's criticism of the special counsel's fraud case against Paul Manafort, the former chairman of the Trump campaign.

Judge T.S. Ellis said on Friday that the case seemed motivated by a desire to get Mr Manafort to potentially incriminate Mr Trump.

"There's no question that the amount of government misconduct is accumulating," Mr Giuliani said. "Very embarrassing to my former Justice Department."

Mr Giuliani created a furore on Wednesday when he contradicted the President about the payment to Ms Clifford. Speaking on Fox News, Mr Giuliani said Mr Trump reimbursed Mr Cohen for a US$130,000 (S$173,368) payment that Mr Cohen has said he made to Ms. Clifford, to keep her from making public a story about an affair she claims she had with Mr. Trump - a claim that he denies.

When asked in April by reporters travelling on Air Force One whether he knew about the payment, Mr Trump said he did not.

On Sunday, Mr Giuliani said he was still trying to establish when Mr Trump learned that Mr Cohen had paid Ms Clifford, whose stage name is Stormy Daniels.

But he added that as a legal matter, it did not matter since the payment did not violate federal campaign finance rules.

Asked about the discrepancies between his account and the President's statement, Mr Giuliani said: "Those don't amount to anything - what is said to the press. That's political."

Mr Giuliani did not shed much new light on the nature of the payments themselves. He said Mr Cohen "made payments for the President, or he conducted business for the President, which means he had legal fees, moneys laid out and expenditures."

But he characterised the sum Ms Clifford received as a "nuisance" payment.

"I never thought US$130,000 was a real payment," Mr Giuliani said. "People don't go away for US$130,000."

Mr Giuliani accused Ms Clifford of trying to make as much money as possible from her notoriety, noting that she made a cameo appearance during the opening skit on Saturday Night Live.

Mr Giuliani's admission on Wednesday caught Mr Trump's staff off guard and prompted Mr Trump to try to clarify the nature of payments he made to Mr Cohen.

The morning after Mr Giuliani's comments, Mr Trump said on Twitter that Mr Cohen "received a monthly retainer, not from the campaign and having nothing to do with the campaign, from which he entered into, through reimbursement, a private contract between two parties, known as a non-disclosure agreement, or NDA."

A day later, he told reporters gathered outside the White House that Mr Giuliani did not know the particulars of the case, even after Mr Giuliani told The New York Times on Wednesday night that he had spoken with the President before and after his interview on Fox News, and that Mr Trump and other lawyers on the team were aware of what he would say.

"Virtually everything said has been said incorrectly, and it's been said wrong, or it's been covered wrong by the press," Mr Trump said on Friday. "He'll get his facts straight."

Seeming to chastise Mr Giuliani, Mr Trump added: "You know what? Learn before you speak. It's a lot easier."

Some of Mr Trump's legal and political advisers believe Mr Giuliani's comments could put the President in legal jeopardy, since federal officials are required to report liabilities of more than US$10,000 during the preceding year.

Mr Trump's last disclosure, which he signed last June, does not mention any debt to Mr Cohen.

On Sunday, Mr Giuliani tried to clarify what Mr Trump called a "retainer".

"The retainer agreement was to repay expenses, which turns out to have included this one," Mr Giuliani said.

Appearing after Mr Giuliani on the same programme, Ms Clifford's lawyer, Mr Michael Avenatti, called Mr Giuliani's interview an "absolute unmitigated disaster" and "one of the worst TV appearances by any attorney on behalf of a client in modern times".

"He now expects the American people to believe that he doesn't really know the facts," Mr Avenatti added. "I think it is obvious to the American people that this is a cover-up, that they are making it up as they go along."

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