Grand jury subpoenas have been issued in connection with a June 2016 meeting that included U.S. President Donald Trump’s son, his son-in-law and a Russian lawyer, two sources told Reuters on Thursday, in a sign that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is gathering pace.
The sources added that Mueller had convened a grand jury in Washington to help investigate allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.
Earlier on Thursday, the Wall Street Journal similarly reported that Mueller was using a grand jury in Washington. The newspaper reports this “signals that Mr. Mueller’s inquiry will likely continue for months.”
Russia has loomed large over the first six months of the Trump presidency. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia worked to tilt the presidential election in Trump’s favour.
Mueller, who was appointed special counsel in May, is leading the probe, which also examines potential collusion with Russia by the Trump campaign.
Moscow denies any meddling and Trump denies any collusion by his campaign, while regularly denouncing the investigations as political witch hunts.
Mueller’s use of a grand jury could give him expansive tools to pursue evidence, including issuing subpoenas and compelling witnesses to testify. The impaneling of the grand jury was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
A spokesperson for Mueller declined comment.
Ty Cobb, special counsel to the president, said he was not aware that Mueller had started using a new grand jury.
“Grand jury matters are typically secret,” Cobb said.
A lawyer for Trump, Jay Sekulow, appeared to downplay the significance of a grand jury, telling Fox News: “This is not an unusual move.”
A grand jury is a group of ordinary citizens who, working behind closed doors, consider evidence of potential criminal wrongdoing that a prosecutor is investigating and decide whether charges should be brought.
“This is a serious development in the Mueller investigation,” said Paul Callan, a former prosecutor.
“Given that Mueller inherited an investigation that began months ago, it would suggest that he has uncovered information pointing in the direction of criminal charges. But against whom is the real question.”
Former U.S. federal prosecutor Nick Ackerman told CBC News Network, “We’re not going to know what’s going on, we may not even know who’s ultimately subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury, none of that is going to be public.”
Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting
News last month of the meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer who he was told had damaging information about his father’s presidential rival, Democrat Hillary Clinton, fuelled questions about the campaign’s dealings with Moscow.
The Republican president has defended his son’s behaviour, saying many people would have taken that meeting.
Trump’s son-in-law and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort also attended the meeting.
A spokesperson for Manafort declined to comment. Lawyers for Trump Jr. and Kushner did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
One source briefed on the matter said Mueller was investigating whether, either at the meeting or afterward, anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign encouraged the Russians to start releasing material they had been collecting on the Clinton campaign since March 2016.
Ackerman described that June 9 meeting as “absolutely a critical, pivotal meeting in this whole question about whether or not the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government in terms of the election.”
The email exchange between Donald Trump Jr. and publicist Rob Goldstone began with Goldstone writing about an offer to provide the Trump campaign with some documents that would incriminate Clinton.
“We’ve never heard anything about those documents, Ackerman said. “What’s significant is that we do know two months before the Russian government started promising documents to the Trump campaign, that there had been a hack into the Hillary Clinton campaign headquarters, and we know by virtue of what has been set out by our national intelligence agencies that these hacks were conducted by the Russians.
“So the question is, did the Trump campaign receive those documents?”
Another source familiar with the inquiry said that while the president himself was not now under investigation, Mueller’s investigation was seeking to determine whether he knew of the June 9 meeting in advance or was briefed on it afterward.
Reuters earlier reported that Mueller’s team was examining money-laundering accusations against Manafort and hoped to push him to co-operate with its probe into possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia. It is not known if the grand jury is investigating those potential charges.
At a boisterous campaign rally in Trump-friendly West Virginia on Thursday night, the president slammed the investigation as a “fake story that is demeaning to all of us and most of all demeaning to our country and demeaning to our Constitution.”
The Democrats, he said, “can continue their obsession with the hoax or they can serve the interests of the American people.”
Trump told the crowd, “The Russia story is a total fabrication. It’s just an excuse for the greatest loss in the history of American politics,” referring to his election victory over Hillary Clinton. “It just makes them feel better when they have nothing else to talk about.”
Trump has questioned Mueller’s impartiality and members of Congress from both parties have expressed concern that Trump might dismiss him. Republican and Democratic senators introduced two pieces of legislation on Thursday seeking to block Trump from firing Mueller.
Sekulow denied that was Trump’s plan. “The president is not thinking of firing Bob Mueller,” Sekulow said.