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Special counsel Mueller using grand jury in Trump-Russia link probe

The empanelling of a grand jury in itself may not mean an indictment was imminent, not was it an endorsement of allegations that Russia did meddle or that there was collusion by Trump campaign aides or family members.

world Updated: Aug 04, 2017 22:37 IST
Yashwant Raj
Former FBI Director Robert Mueller, the special counsel probing Russian interference in the 2016 election, departs Capitol Hill following a closed door meeting in Washington.
Former FBI Director Robert Mueller, the special counsel probing Russian interference in the 2016 election, departs Capitol Hill following a closed door meeting in Washington. (AP File)

US Special Counsel Robert Mueller has started using a grand jury in Washington DC in his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election in a sign the probe was gathering momentum and had entered a new phase.

The empanelling of a grand jury in itself may not mean an indictment was imminent, not was it an endorsement of allegations that Russia did meddle or that there was collusion by Trump campaign aides or family members.

Mueller, a former director of the FBI, started using the grand jury some weeks ago, at first one that was based in the adjoining state of Virginia and now one in DC. His office has declined to comment on the development.

Ty Cobb, a lawyer for President Donald Trump, has said he was not aware of the empanelling of the grand jury, saying they are “typically secret”, but added the White House “favours anything that accelerates the conclusion of his work fairly.…The White House is committed to fully cooperating” with Mueller.

A grand jury, which could have up to 23 members, does operate in secrecy unlike the other kind of standard juries and has both investigative and charging functions. It summons witnesses, without their counsel, and issues subpoena and, finally, determines if prosecutors have a case — an indictment — fit enough for a trial.

It’s a standard procedure, but one which, given the context, caused considerable excitement after it was first reporter by The Wall Street Journal on Thursday.

Experts and commentators said the development meant the special counsel’s probe was serious and possibly broader and wider than understood earlier.

And, at the least, it was a sign the probe was not winding down, and may last a while. “Not sure why all the hyperventilating re: Russia grand jury. Mueller hired 16 prosecutors. Of course there would be GJ. This will take time,” tweeted Preet Bharara, the Indian-origin former US attorney fired by Trump.

The president himself has been extremely critical of Trump, frequently accusing him of pursuing a “witch hunt” against him and has, according to reports citing unidentified White House aides, considered firing him or precipitating his exit.

His public remarks about Mueller have been a cause of concern and two senators, a Republican and a Democrat, plan to introduce a legislation that will empower justice department special counsels such as Mueller, to challenge their removal in a court of law.

Trump will still be free to fire the special counsel, whose probe into the Russia meddling allegations have since expanded to include Trump and his family’s business dealings, a red line, according to the president and his lawyers, who have warned him not to go there and restrict his probe to the elections.

Mueller has a broad mandate to not only investigate the meddling but also “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation”, which, in the nature of such investigations, can lead to the discovery of unintended and sometimes completely unforeseen outcomes.

The special counsel has already started issuing subpoena, according to reports, in the investigation of Trump’s first National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and into a June 2016 meeting the president eldest son Donald Trump Jr with a Russian lawyer considered close to Kremlin and who had promised damaging information on Hillary Clinton.