The news that special counselor Robert Mueller has impaneled a grand jury has shaken Washington, fueling speculation that the investigation into Russian election meddling is growing in scope and seriousness.
The Wall Street Journal first reported that Mueller, whose team of prosecutors has swelled to 16 in recent weeks, now has a dedicated pool of 23 grand jurors charged with examining subpoenaed documents, listening to witness testimony and ultimately deciding whether criminal charges are warranted.
A spokesman for the special counsel declined to confirm or deny the existence of the grand jury.
Legal experts say the development is not in itself surprising — a special investigator given broad authority by the Justice Department to probe allegations with proximity to the White House would be expected to convene a select grand jury.
Yet the Washington, D.C.-based grand jury is significant because Mueller reportedly already had a grand jury in Alexandria, Va. for an investigation into the business dealings and campaign contacts of Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
If Mueller felt the investigation did not extend beyond Flynn, he would not have needed to impanel a new grand jury in the nation’s capital, some say.
The existence of a grand jury also indicates Mueller will be pursuing criminal charges, even if the target of his investigation and the channels he might take remain a mystery.
Mueller has subpoena powers and can compel witnesses to testify before his grand jury, which would also vote on whether to indict any of the subjects of his investigations.
The top-level legal talent that Mueller continues to accumulate — most recently Greg Andres of the New York law firm Davis Polk Wardwell left his partnership to join the team — is a sign to some that the special counsel is digging in for a months or even years-long slog.
“This is going well into 2018 and whether it last beyond that is anyone’s guess,” Robert Ray, the special counsel who investigated President Bill ClintonBill ClintonDemocrats’ new ‘Better Deal’ comes up short for people of color Overnight Energy: Report claims Perry in running for DHS chief | EPA science office clears Pruitt | Interior protects Montana monument Interior protects Montana monument from review MORE’s Whitewater dealings, told The Hill. “This is an indication that it will not be wrapped up in 30, 60 or 90 days.”
Still, experts cautioned not to read too much into the formation of a grand jury, which is an expected step for a seasoned prosecutor like Mueller.
Plus, grand juries do not always return indictments. Ray’s Whitewater grand jury did not result in criminal charges against the president.
“If I’m in Trump World, I don’t know that this rattles me because it’s not a surprise, but it’s certainly not good news for the president,” said John Wood, a former U.S. attorney.
“It’s newsworthy because there was always the possibility the investigation would wrap up soon and this is an indication it won’t. Still, it doesn’t mean for certain that charges are coming. Grand juries are used for the investigation portion as well as for charges, so there may be no charges. It only tells us that Mueller is looking into more than Michael Flynn.”
The pool of 23 ordinary citizens is expected to be called on weekly to examine Mueller’s findings and hear from witnesses who will be compelled to testify under penalty of contempt.
Grand juries typically last for 12 to 18 months but can last for years. It would require a majority of jurors — 12 — to issue an indictment. Most grand juries are shared by multiple prosecutors, but it is expected that Mueller’s will be his alone.
The investigation could go in any number of directions.
CNN reported Thursday that subpoenas had been issued in relation to a meeting Donald TrumpDonald TrumpBorder patrol was ordered not to engage with congressmen, lawyers during travel ban Trump says he never called White House ‘a dump’ Trump to sign memo on Chinese intel property trade practices Friday: report MORE Jr. had with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower last year. A representative for the lawyer had claimed to have campaign dirt on Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonCongress wants Trump Jr. phone records related to Russia meeting Zuckerberg hires top Clinton pollster amid rumors of presidential run: report Democrats’ new ‘Better Deal’ comes up short for people of color MORE, but all of the parties that attended the meeting claim the Russian lawyer instead pushed for changes to a U.S. law that sanctioned Russia for human rights violations.
Several media outlets have reported that Mueller’s investigation could extend to Trump’s business empire, which would be a controversial line of inquiry.
“If they’re truly looking into potential financial crimes unrelated to Russia and the 2016 election, I’d say they’re stepping outside of their delegated authority, and that would be very concerning,” said former U.S. attorney Matthew Whitaker. “This shouldn’t be a fishing expedition. Eventually, it starts looking political and like you’re abusing the instruments of your investigation to go after the president.”
Barring leaks, which have become commonplace in the Trump era, the grand jury and special counsel will operate largely in secrecy. It will likely not be known for some time who the targets of the investigation are or what paths the investigation takes.
Former FBI director James Comey, who Trump fired, has testified that the president was never the target of an investigation when he was in charge of the bureau, in contrast to media reports that suggested otherwise.
“Comey said three times the president is not under investigation and we have no reason to believe that has changed,” said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Meanwhile, Trump has ratcheted up his attacks against Mueller in recent weeks. He has called the investigation a “witch hunt” and drawn attention to alleged conflicts of interest.
Trump’s allies have described Mueller and Comey as close friends and have drawn attention to Democratic donations from some of the lawyers on the special counsel.
There has long been speculation that the president would fire Mueller or seek to have him removed, but Trump attorney Jay Sekulow swatted away that speculation in an interview on Fox News Channel’s “Your World with Neil Cavuto” on Thursday.
“The president is not thinking about firing Robert Mueller so the speculation that’s out there is just incorrect,” he said.
Sekulow also downplayed the impaneling of the grand jury, saying it was expected.
“This is not a surprise because the impaneling of a grand jury in situations like this when you’ve got an investigation is typically how you move forward,” Sekulow said. “It is really much a standard operating procedure when you’ve got a situation like this but with respect to the empanelling of the grand jury, we have no reason to believe that the president is under investigation here.”
White House special counsel Ty Cobb said he only learned of the grand jury through media reports.
“Grand jury matters are typically secret,” Cobb said in a statement. “The White House favors anything that accelerates the conclusion of his work fairly. The White House is committed to fully cooperating with Mr. Mueller.”