US Vice President Mike Pence hires his own lawyer for Russia probes

WASHINGTON, June 15 (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has hired a lawyer known for defending government officials in high-profile investigations to help him with probes into whether there were ties between the election campaign of U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia, his office said on Thursday.

U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Moscow interfered in last year's presidential campaign to try to tilt the vote in Trump's favor.

Trump, who hired his own lawyer last month for probes by a special counsel and congressional committees, lashed out on Thursday after a report that he was under investigation for possible obstruction of justice.

He dismissed as "phony" the idea that his campaign colluded with any Russian effort to sway the 2016 election. Moscow denies meddling in the campaign.

Pence hired Richard Cullen, chairman of law firm McGuireWoods, to help him respond to inquiries from special counsel Robert Mueller, a spokesman said.

Cullen is a former federal prosecutor who has long ties to former FBI Director James Comey, whom Trump fired on May 9. He represents former FIFA President Sepp Blatter in the corruption probe into world soccer's governing body. U.S. prosecutors have not accused Blatter of wrongdoing.

Cullen, who supported Trump's rival Jeb Bush during the race for the Republican presidential nomination, also represented Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican and former majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, during the investigation into corrupt Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff. DeLay was not charged.

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Vice President Mike Pence through the years

Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., Derek Karachner, Ian Slatter, Molly Jurmu, Mark Ahearn.

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Mike Pence, R-Ind., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., talk during the markup of the bill which would establish the Department of Homeland Security.

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(L-R) Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN), attorney Floyd Abrams, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and attorney Kenneth Starr speak to reporters in the U.S. Supreme Court Plaza in Washington, D.C., September 8, 2003. Attorneys made arguments during a special session of the Supreme Court about the constitutionality of the McCain-Feingold campaign financing reform law.

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Rep. Mike Pence, new head of the Republican conservative caucus, taken in his Hill office. Includes a bust of Ronald Reagan.

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (R) and Indiana Governor Mike Pence (L) wave to the crowd before addressing the crowd during a campaign stop at the Grand Park Events Center in Westfield, Indiana, July 12, 2016.

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MEET THE PRESS

Pictured: Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) left, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) right, appear on 'Meet the Press' in Washington, D.C., Sunday, Feb. 21, 2010.

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U.S. Vice President-elect Mike Pence arrives at Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., December 13, 2016.

(REUTERS/Andrew Kelly)

President-elect Donald Trump takes the stage with Vice President-elect Mike Pence during a rally in Orlando, Fla., on Friday, Dec. 16, 2016.

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Vice President-elect Mike Pence arrives at Trump Tower on December 15, 2016 in New York City. President-Elect Donald Trump continues to hold meetings with potential members of his cabinet at his office.

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Tim Kaine, 2016 Democratic vice presidential nominee, left, and Mike Pence, 2016 Republican vice presidential nominee, speak during the vice presidential debate at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia, U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016. Indiana Governor Mike Pence and Virginia Senator Tim Kaine arrive at tonight's debate with three main assignments: defend their bosses from attack, try to land a few blows, and avoid any mistakes showing them unfit to be president.

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U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (L) takes the oath of office from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas (R) as his wife Karen Pence holds the Bible, on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. In today's inauguration ceremony Donald J. Trump becomes the 45th president of the United States.

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Sergio Marchionne, chief executive officer of Chrysler Group LLC and Fiat SpA, left, speaks with Mike Pence, governor of Indiana, at the Chrysler Group transmission plant in Kokomo, Indiana, U.S., on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013. Chrysler Group LLC, the automaker majority owned by Fiat SpA, will invest about $374 million and add 1,250 jobs at Indiana factories to boost output of eight-and nine-speed transmissions.

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UNITED STATES - JULY 25: Mike Pence--IND

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Reps. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., left, and Mike Pence, R-Ind, share a laugh at a rally to support a House resolution, scheduled for a vote Thursday, that would require a list of earmarks and the names of lawmakers sponsoring them to be contained in committee and conference reports. The rally took place on Cannon Terrace.

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US Republican Representative from Indiana Mike Pence, gestures as he speaks during a press conference at the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, 01 April 2007. Pence and a group of US Congressmen are on a visit to the war-torn country.

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Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., makes marks on the House health care bill as House Republicans gathered in the House Republicans Reading Room in the Longworth House Office Building on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2009.

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U.S. Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) speaks during a rally on Capitol Hill April 6, 2011 in Washington, DC. U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), thought to be a contender for the 2012 presidential race, also spoke at the rally held on Capitol Hill by Americans for Prosperity in support of spending cuts.

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House Budget chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., speaks with Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., as they arrive for a meeting of the House Republican Conference in the basement of the U.S. Capitol on Monday, July 25, 2011.

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Indiana Governor Mike Pence is seen at the 2015 IPL 500 Festival Parade on May 23, 2015 in Indianapolis, Indiana.

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U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) while Vice President Mike Pence (C) looks on during a luncheon at the Congress of Tomorrow Republican Member Retreat January 26, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Congressional Republicans are gathering for three days to plan their 2017 legislative agenda.

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US Vice President Mike Pence and Karen Pence dance during the Liberty ball at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC.

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From left, First Lady Melania Trump, President Donald Trump, Major General Bradley Becker, Vice President Mike Pence, and his wife Karen Pence review the troops following the swearing in of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017.

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Pence had been looking at hiring his own counsel for several weeks, and made his decision earlier this week after interviewing several candidates, his office said.

"The vice president is focused entirely on his duties and promoting the president's agenda and looks forward to a swift conclusion of this matter," Pence spokesman, Jarrod Agen, said in a statement.

Pence has seldom addressed the Russia issue, which has overshadowed Trump's efforts to overhaul the healthcare system, cut taxes and boost jobs - priorities that Pence has worked on intensively with Republican lawmakers.

The Washington Post first reported the Cullen hire. Just before the story broke, Trump wrote a pair of angry tweets, suggesting that Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent in the election, should be under investigation instead of him.

Earlier on Thursday, Trump called the probe a "witch hunt" on Twitter. "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," Trump wrote.

LINES OF INQUIRY

Mueller is investigating whether anyone on Trump's campaign, or associated with it, with him or any of his businesses, may have had any illegal dealings with Russian officials or others with ties to the Kremlin, said one U.S. official familiar with the rough outlines of the probe and who spoke on condition of anonymity.

That includes the finances and business dealings of Jared Kushner, who is married to Trump's daughter Ivanka, and is a senior adviser at the White House, the Washington Post reported on Thursday, citing unnamed officials familiar with the matter.

Mueller is also looking at a second line of inquiry: whether, if any potential offenses were committed, Trump or others attempted to cover them up or obstruct the investigation into them, the source said.

An examination of possible obstruction of justice charges was "unavoidable" given testimony by Comey, although the issue may not become the main focus of the probe, the source said.

Comey told a Senate panel last week he believed Trump fired him to undermine the FBI's Russia probe. He also told the Senate Intelligence Committee in his June 8 testimony that he believed Trump had directed him to drop a related agency investigation into the president's former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

White House officials, including Pence, initially gave differing reasons for Comey's dismissal, including that he had lost the confidence of the FBI.

Pence said on Twitter on May 10 that Trump had "made the right decision at the right time to remove Comey as the head of the FBI" and praised him for showing "strong & decisive leadership to restore trust & confidence of the American people in the FBI."

Trump later contradicted his own staff, saying on May 11 he had the Russia issue in mind when he fired Comey.

Examining the possibility of obstruction charges will allow investigators to interview key administration figures including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and possibly Trump himself, said the source familiar with the Mueller investigation.

While a sitting president is unlikely to face criminal prosecution, obstruction of justice could form the basis for impeachment. Any such step would face a steep hurdle as it would require approval by the U.S. House of Representatives, which is controlled by Trump's fellow Republicans.

(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Eric Beech, Jonathan Landay and John Walcott in Washington and David Ingram in San Francisco; Writing by Susan Heavey, Arshad Mohammed, Howard Goller and Roberta Rampton and; Editing by James Dalgleish and Peter Cooney)

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