WASHINGTON — Special counsel Robert Mueller has reportedly impaneled a grand jury, a sign the federal investigation into Russia's interference in the presidential election is intensifying and could go on for many months or years.
The move would give Mueller, a former FBI director, enormous power to subpoena documents and compel witnesses to testify under oath.
Mueller has been investigating possible collusion between Trump associates and Russians who sought to influence the election by hacking Democrats. The probe's expansion is also virtually sure to incense President Trump, who is already furious with the Russia investigation he calls a "witch hunt."
The Wall Street Journal, which broke the story Thursday, reported that the grand jury was based in Washington and began working in recent weeks. The grand jury has issued subpoenas relating to the controversial June 2016 meeting between the president's son, Donald Trump Jr., and a Russian lawyer, Reuters reported.
Last month, Trump Jr. released emails showing he arranged the meeting in the hopes of obtaining damaging information about his father's election opponent Hillary Clinton – even after he was told it would come from the Russian government.
The news appeared to take the Trump team by surprise.
John Dowd, Trump's lead outside lawyer, said Thursday that he was not aware of Mueller's reported move to impanel a new grand jury in D.C., but said he was confident that the president was not a target of prosecutors.
"With respect to reports of a federal grand jury, I have no reason to believe that President Trump is being investigated," Dowd said.
Yet Trump's own responses to the Russia investigation are also under scrutiny.
Trump in May abruptly fired his former FBI director James Comey. In subsequent testimony, Comey alleged that the president tried to get him to drop an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who left the White House after misleading his colleagues about his contacts with Russian officials.
Trump has recently stepped up criticism of his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions – another move that has raised questions about whether Trump was trying to obstruct or wrest control over Mueller's probe.
Earlier this week, Trump's actions were in the spotlight again, after a Washington Post report that Trump personally dictated a statement from Trump Jr. that later proved to be inaccurate and misleading.
The White House acknowledged Tuesday that Trump "weighed in" on the disputed statement, which appeared to contradict statements made by Trump's own lawyers that the president was not involved in the drafting process. The initial July 8 statement provided by Trump Jr. said the meeting primarily had to do with the adoption of Russian babies and was not a campaign issue.
On Thursday, after reports of the grand jury surfaced, the White House said in a statement provided by spokeswoman Sarah Sanders that Comey "said three times the President is not under investigation and we have no reason to believe that has changed."
Ty Cobb, special counsel to the president, also said he did not know that Mueller had called a grand jury, but stressed the White House would comply with the federal investigation.
"Grand jury matters are typically secret," Mr. Cobb said. "The White House favors anything that accelerates the conclusion of his work fairly.…The White House is committed to fully cooperating with Mr. Mueller."
Yet Trump has objected to previous reports that Mueller may expand his probe to include his personal finances, a move Trump has said would exceed Mueller's authority. In a July 19 interview with The New York Times, Trump said, "I have done nothing wrong. A special counsel should never have been appointed in this case."
Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress welcomed news of the development.
“You don’t impanel a grand jury if you only have smoke. Mueller must be seeing fire. (Trump) and/or his associates in bigly trouble," tweeted Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. added: "Americans deserve answers. I hope this brings us one step closer."
The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, which is also investigating Russia's election meddling, said news that Mueller has impaneled a grand jury "suggests his work is proceeding."
"All the more (important) that Congress protect his independence," tweeted Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.
Earlier Tuesday, senators from both parties took steps to ensure that Mueller stays special counsel – despite Trump's recent digs at the former FBI director whom he has accused of having unspecified conflicts of interest. Two bills introduced Thursday, right as the Senate prepared to leave for its August break, are designed to protect special counsels from political interference.
Outside watchdog groups such as Common Cause also joined in warning Thursday against possible retaliation by Trump.
“The impaneling of a grand jury to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election hammers home the imperative that the Trump administration must not interfere with Robert Mueller’s investigation or that of the grand jury,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, president of Common Cause.
“Regardless of whether the President wants to continue to call Russian election interference ‘fake news,’ he and his administration must take this criminal investigation seriously and offer investigators their full cooperation. The president must not follow through with his threats to fire Robert Mueller, but if he does Congress must hold him and members of his administration accountable because no American, not even the President, is above the law.”
– Jessica Estepa contributed
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