Mueller investigation enters new phase

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of potential coordination between President Trump’s campaign and Russia has moved into a new phase with the impaneling of a grand jury. 

By taking the step, legal experts say, Mueller is indicating that he has found evidence of criminal activity and that the investigation will extend beyond Trump’s ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn.

“We don’t know exactly what these developments portend, other than that there’s actually some significant criminal charges being considered,” said Stephen Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas Law School. 

“It is a more serious phase, because it suggests that the special counsel has reached a point where he is up to presenting evidence to a grand jury.”

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Mueller, a former FBI director and seasoned prosecutor, appears to be casting a wide net in the probe, with some reports indicating that he is now scrutinizing financial ties between Trump, his business associates and Moscow. 

Trump’s lawyers are paying close attention, arguing the investigation should remain narrowly focused on Russian election meddling. The president himself warned last month that looking into his financials would amount to crossing a “red line.” 

Trump attorney Jay Sekulow pushed back against the special counsel in an interview on Fox News Channel’s “Hannity” on Thursday night, warning that any expansion of the investigation would be met with resistance.

“The mandate says it's to investigate allegations regarding the Russian government's effort to interfere with the 2016 election, and also if there was any coordination and links between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of the president,” Sekulow said.

“Our view would be very clear that the special counsel's office has to stay within its mandate,” he continued. “If it goes beyond the mandate, there are venues and methods upon which you challenge that. Whether it's directly with the special counsel if necessary, whether it's with the deputy attorney general, there are ways to do that.”

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s letter appointing Mueller as special counsel stated that the investigation would encompass Russian election interference and “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”

The special counsel and his new grand jury will have broad powers to pursue any direction he wants to go.

Mueller has subpoena power, and witnesses will be compelled to testify before the grand jury under penalty of contempt. Those called before the grand jury will need special immunity to even invoke their Fifth Amendment rights, experts say. 

If the investigation veers into Trump’s personal finances, the grand jury could have the power to subpoena the president’s tax returns, which he has labored to keep secret. 

Most grand juries are made up of 23 citizens, with a majority vote required to bring criminal charges. The panels, which operate in secret, typically last for 12 or 18 months but can stretch on for years.

“An investigation like this, even if you wanted to go as fast as you can, will take a long time,” said Steven Cash, an attorney at Day Pitney’s Washington, D.C., office.

It is believed that the D.C. grand jury is a select pool that will focus solely on Mueller’s investigation, rather than being shared by other U.S. attorneys.

Still, experts caution that the impaneling of a grand jury is standard procedure for a major investigation. While grand juries can issue indictments, some disband without ever doing so.

“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,” said John Wood, a former U.S. attorney. 

The army of lawyers that Mueller has assembled since becoming special counsel — he now has 16 at his disposal — has alarmed Trump’s allies both for their number and their areas of expertise. The prosecutors are at the top of their fields in cybercrime, financial crime and terrorism, among other specialties.

“I'm very concerned that Mueller sooner or later will get somebody just because he's brought in so many headhunters who are so vicious and so dedicated and so left wing that they're going to find somebody for something,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said on Fox News’s “Hannity.”

“How can he just be expanding what he wants to look at endlessly, and why aren't people frightened when they watch the pure power of the government which ultimately can crush anybody if it works at it? There's something almost sick about the system as it currently works.”

Mueller recently brought on Greg Andres, a former Justice Department official who more recently served as a white-collar criminal defense lawyer, to join his investigative team. His appointment is another sign of the probe’s expansion, Vladeck said. 

“I think he fits the bill of someone whose background lends itself to a more expansive conception of what this investigation is looking at,” Vladeck said. “He’s not the kind of guy that you would need if you were only going after, say, Flynn and [former Trump campaign chairman Paul] Manafort for failing to properly register as foreign agents.”

Barring any leaks, few outside of the grand jury, the special counsel and Trump’s legal team will know the targets of the Russia investigation or the avenues Mueller is exploring.

Washington is on edge over how Trump will respond. There has been speculation that the president would fire Mueller or seek to have him removed by officials at the Justice Department, which could trigger a monumental battle.

Sekulow swatted away speculation about firing Mueller on Thursday, saying that the president is not considering it. 

Trump, meanwhile, did not make any threats against Mueller at a public rally Thursday night in West Virginia, although he did vent his frustration with the matter.

“Have you seen any Russians in West Virginia or Ohio or Pennsylvania? Are there any Russians here tonight, any Russians?” he asked. “They can't beat us at the voting booths, so they're trying to cheat you out of the future and the future that you want. They're trying to cheat you out of the leadership you want with a fake story that is demeaning to all of us.

“I just hope the final determination is a truly honest one, which is what the millions of people who gave us our big win in November deserve and what all Americans who want a better future want and deserve,” he added.