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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

Probe into Russian meddling in US election gathers pace as Grand Jury assembled

The impanelling of a grand jury suggests Mr Mueller’s work has entered a new phase, reports Rob Crilly in New York

President Donald Trump, pictured at the Celebrate Freedom event in Washington earlier this month, called the allegations a “fabrication”. AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
President Donald Trump, pictured at the Celebrate Freedom event in Washington earlier this month, called the allegations a “fabrication”. AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

The special counsel investigating allegations of Russian interference in the US presidential election has convened a grand jury in Washington, according to the Wall Street Journal and Reuters, in a sign that his probe is gathering pace.

It has reportedly begun issuing subpoenas in connection with a meeting last year that included President Donald Trump’s son, his son-in-law and a Russian lawyer.

Legal experts said it meant Robert Mueller, the special counsel, could now begin hearing evidence from sworn witnesses as well as using subpoenas to collect documents.

Mr Mueller is leading the federal investigation into Russian attempts to help Mr Trump win last year’s election and whether there was any collusion with his campaign.

The president has repeatedly dismissed the inquiry as a “witch hunt”. Hours after details of the grand jury emerged, he appeared before about 9000 supporters in West Virginia to rail against his opponents.

“We didn’t win because of Russia,” he said. “We won because of you.”

He painted the allegations as a “fabrication” of the Washington “swamp” to deny him his election victory.

“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 said.

The impanelling of a grand jury suggests Mr Mueller’s work has entered a new phase.

In the US, grand juries are commonly used to weigh evidence in private in order to decide whether charges should be brought.

But in this case, with no charges expected imminently, the most important feature was the additional investigative powers, said Margo Schlanger, professor of law at the University of Michigan.

“That’s the difference now,” she said, adding that witnesses have been able to refuse to co-operation until this point.

“People are going to have to answer Bob Mueller’s questions or take the Fifth Amendment. They are going to have say, ‘No, the answer might incriminate me.’”

The question of links to Russia has cast a deep cloud over the White House. Every week fresh revelations have put the administration on the back foot as it fights allegations of a cover-up.

Another grand jury, set up in Virginia, was already investigating Mike Flynn. He was fired as national security adviser in February after admitting he gave misleading statements about meetings with Russian officials.

Since then the questions have only deepened.

Last month it emerged that Donald Trump Jr, Paul Manafort, the then campaign chairman, and Jared Kushner, the president’s son in law, met a Russian lawyer they had been told had damaging information about Hillary Clinton.

Subpoenas related to that 2016 meeting at Trump Tower suggest Mr Mueller’s investigation has reached the president’s inner circle.

Joshua Dressler, professor of law at Ohio State University, said aggressive prosecutors could almost always persuade a grand jury to issue an indictment.

“My sense is that special counsel Mueller is a fair minded person – and I don’t usually have that view of prosecutors – and that if the investigation does not convince him that there’s a case against someone then I don’t think he would recommend to the grand jurors that they would indict somebody,” he said.

Lawyers for Mr Trump said they were unaware of the grand jury.

“With respect to the news of the federal grand jury, I have no reason to believe that the president is under investigation,” said John Dowd in a statement.

Ty Cobb, White House special counsel who was appointed last month deal with questions about the Russia inquiry, said: "Grand jury matters are typically secret.

“The White House favours anything that accelerates the conclusion of his work fairly. The White House is committed to fully co-operating with Mr Mueller.”

Mr Mueller took over the investigation in May following Mr Trump’s dismissal of James Comey as FBI director.

Since then he has put together a team of high-powered investigators, including prosecutors expert in white collar crime, international bribery and fraud.

This week it emerged that Greg Andres, a former Justice Department official, had left private practice to become the 16th lawyer on the team, suggesting the investigation would run into at least 2018.

Mr Trump’s defence team has been looking for potential conflicts of interests among investigators and the president himself has said any probe into his business dealings would fall outside their remit.

As a result, senators on Thursday moved to protect Mr Mueller. They introduced two bipartisan bills to make it harder for him to be fired by the president.

“Our bill allows judicial review of any decision to terminate a counsel to make sure it's done for the reasons cited in the regulations rather than political motivation,” said Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator, who co-sponsored one of the bills with Cory Booker, of the Democratic party.