Special Counsel Robert Mueller has empaneled a Grand Jury in his investigation into alleged collusion between the Russian government and president Donald Trump’s election campaign team. The news was first reported by The Wall Street Journal. Whilst the move in no way indicates a breakthrough in the investigation – or that the possibility of indictments is any greater – it does seem to suggest a widening of the search for evidence.
The paper reports that the Grand Jury began its work in recent weeks.
A Grand Jury gives prosecutors the power to subpoena documents and witnesses, who can be called to testify under oath. Del Quentin Wilbur of The Journal explained, on Fox News, that this development signifies an intensifying of the investigation but does not suggest any certainty that indictments will be handed down. “It’s both a basic step,” Wilbur Told Fox’s Shepard Smith, “but also one that signals, ‘Hey, this is heating up. I’ve found enough here to justify getting more information and doing more work.’”
More than anything, the empaneling of a Grand Jury suggests that the investigation will continue for many months to come. Mueller was appointed to his task in May 2017 but Congressional inquiries and hearings, begun months ago, have yet to turn up any credible evidence of collusion between Trump associates and Russian officials. The FBI meanwhile has now been investigating this matter for more than a year.
Mueller had already assembled a formidable team of attorneys – sixteen in all and spokesman Peter Carr told the New York Times that this team will add even more. Many people, including the president himself, have cried foul over Mueller’s close relationship with Former FBI Director James Comey, who Trump fired. Adding to the perception of impropriety is the fact that several members of Mueller’s team have connections to the Clinton Foundation or have donated to the Democratic Party. Jeannie Rhee is one striking example of this obvious conflict of interest; Rhee is a former Deputy Assistant Attorney General under Eric Holder, has donated heavily to Hillary Clinton and has provided legal representation to both Clinton herself and the Clinton Foundation, according to Business Insider.
The president himself went so far as to call the entire investigation a “witch hunt.”
In response to the Wall Street Journal report, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders released a statement in which she points out that James Comey “said three times the president is not under investigation,” adding, “we have no reason to believe that has changed.”
The president’s own special counsel, Ty Cobb, said that he was unaware of the Grand Jury. According to USA Today, he responded “Grand Jury matters are typically secret. The White House favors anything that accelerates the conclusion of his [Mueller’s] work, fairly…the White House is committed to fully cooperating with Mr. Mueller.”
This is the most significant news to come out of the Mueller investigation since its inception. Grand Juries often operate out of the public eye. The entire Russia-collusion story has faded, somewhat, from the media spotlight, in recent weeks but this is likely to put it front and center – at least for a while.