The legal net around Donald Trump’s beleaguered presidency tightened dramatically this week with news that a grand jury has been established a few hundred yards from the White House, to pursue evidence of collusion with the Kremlin.
It is a troubling development for the president, for several reasons. In the US legal system, a grand jury has broad powers to issue subpoenas, and ultimately indictments, at the request of prosecutors.
The special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 US election, former FBI chief Robert Mueller, had been using a sitting grand jury in Virginia to authorise his team’s demands for documents and witnesses. The convening of a separate grand jury in Washington suggests the Mueller team – working in a suite of offices a few blocks’ walk from where the 20-odd jurors sit – is going to be making extensive use of it. It will not be hospitable terrain for the president. Trump won only 4% of the vote in the District of Columbia.
“This sets the scene of action for criminal trials, where charges will be laid, in the worst possible jurisdiction for Trump,” said Scott Horton, a lecturer at Columbia Law School. “Compared to Virginia, Republicansin DC are few and far between.”
The grand jury is also clear evidence that the inquiry is widening, not tapering off. It suggests that the special counsel is exploring possible crimes committed inside the District of Columbia.
Mueller’s investigators are reported by the New York Times to have asked the White House for documents related to the administration’s first, short-lived national security advisor, Michael Flynn, who resigned after being found to have concealed the full nature of his contacts with the Russian ambassador to Washington, and who is also under scrutiny for his lobbying work for Turkey during the campaign.
Meanwhile, a report from Vox that senior FBI officials have been told to consider themselves potential witnesses in an investigation of Trump for obstruction of justice. The former FBI director James Comey, Mueller’s successor in the post, has testified that Trump tried to put pressure on him to drop the Flynn investigation.
After Comey rebuffed the pressure and refused to swear personal loyalty to Trump, he was fired, on May 9. Trump denies trying to coerce Comey into dropping the case but this is not simply one man’s word against another’s. Comey made extensive notes and kept an inner circle of top FBI aides informed of daily developments.
In the investigation into the obstruction of justice, the White House is the potential crime scene. That is where Trump contrived to be alone on two occasions with Comey and where the alleged arm-twisting took place.
In the Watergate scandal, to which the Russian influence affair is drawing inevitable comparisons, it was the cover-up that ultimately proved fatal to Richard Nixon’s presidency. It is increasingly possible the same fate could befall Trump. On Tuesday, after adamant denials from Trump’s lawyer, the White House admitted that Trump had “weighed in as any father would” in drafting a misleading statement about his son’s June 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer with strong Kremlin and intelligence links. The statement said the meeting was about adoptions of Russian children by US nationals. An email exchange released later by Donald Trump Jr showed that the Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya was in fact offering damaging material on Hillary Clinton.
Reuters has reported that the grand jury in Washington had already issued subpoenas connected to that meeting at Trump Tower in New York, another sign that the investigation is closing in on the Trump family. Trump Jr’s rapid emailed response to the Russian offer of dirt on Clinton – “If it’s what you say I love it” – suggests at least an appetite for collusion, like his father’s own call a month later, in July 2016, for Russia to find thousands of Clinton’s “missing” emails. The Trump campaign later denied that public appeal represented an encouragement for Moscow to hack his opponent’s private server. Trump Jr has claimed nothing came of the June meeting with Veselnitskaya.
Grand jury subpoenas could oblige the president’s son and other participants at the meeting, including Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, to testify under oath about what really happened in Trump Tower.
Manafort, who ran the campaign for three months in the summer of 2016, has been widely reported to be a focal point of the Mueller inquiry and the FBI investigation before that. Having worked as an adviser to Moscow-backed figures in Ukraine, he represents one of the links between Trump and Moscow. CNN reported on Friday that investigators had found intercepts of Russian operatives referring to conversations with Manafort about coordinating the release of information damaging to Clinton possibly hacked from the Democratic National Committee.
A spokesman for Manafort, Jason Maloni, rejected the report. “Paul Manafort did not collude with the Russian government to undermine the 2016 election or to hack the DNC,” Maloni said in an email to the Guardian. “Other than that comment, we aren’t going to respond to anonymous officials illegally peddling secondhand conspiracy theories. But the Justice Department, and the courts if necessary, should hold someone to account for the flood of unlawful government leaks targeting Mr Manafort.”
It is evident, however, that the scrutiny of Manafort, the now infamous Trump Tower meeting and the obstruction of justice issue are just fragments of a far bigger inquiry. Almost all the 16 lawyers now on Mueller’s team are specialists in money-laundering and other financial crimes, suggesting that the investigation will spend much of its time unwinding the complexities of the Trump and Kushner real estate empires, looking for where the money has come from to keep them afloat. The latest hire, Greg Andres, is a former deputy assistant attorney general who used to run a unit that targeted foreign bribery.
“The Mueller dream-team now has the top 14 financial crimes prosecutors in America,” said Malcolm Nance, a former US intelligence officer and the author of a book on Moscow’s role in the 2016 US election, The Plot to Hack America. Nance predicted that the Mueller investigation would look into every corner of Trump and Kushner’s past business dealings.
“The wheels of justice grind finely and slow but this is a wood chipper, and all these various items and going to get fed into it – Flynn, [Jared] Kushner, Trump, Manafort and anyone who has been assigned to the White House over this period,” Nance said. “Their entire lives are going to be subjected to scrutiny. No one is getting out unscathed. That’s why Trump is so terrified.”
In a New York Times interview last month, Trump appeared to suggest that a probe of his financial dealings beyond direct links with Russia would represent a “violation”, a possible red line which Mueller should not cross. He would not be drawn on whether he would seek to have the special counsel sacked in that eventuality, “because I don’t think it’s going to happen”.
Firing Mueller would come at a high price, triggering uproar in Washington, alienating some Republicans in Congress. Two bipartisan bills were drafted this week aimed at blocking Trump from doing just that.
Even if the president managed to rid himself of the troublesome special counsel, he would have no guarantee that he could kill off the investigation. The work of other members of the team and of the grand juries would continue.
Trump has also been reported to be exploring the possibility of issuing pardons to family members and other associates found to have broken the law, including even pardoning himself, a stretch of executive prerogative into uncharted territory.
For now, his strategy is to seek to drain the legitimacy of the special counsel and the FBI, ridiculing the investigation as a witch hunt. His supporters are counter-investigating the Mueller team, looking for weaknesses and points of leverage and portraying the investigators as operatives of an amorphous “deep state”.
“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,” Trump told a rally in West Virginia on Thursday, fueling the mood of paranoia among his most committed supporters.
That strategy looks ahead to an endgame in which the Mueller investigation comes into its conclusion, next year or possibly even later than that. The grand juries could issue indictments of Trump associates along the way, but when it comes to the president himself, Mueller’s judgment will most likely come in the form of a report to Congress.
It will then be up to the House of Representatives whether to proceed with impeachment and then the Senate to decide his guilt. Those will be political judgements. Until now, only a few Republicans have broken ranks openly against Trump.
The president’s general approval ratings have slid to the mid-30s, but they are still high among his core supporters in battleground states, who believe fervently in “deep state” conspiracies. Any Republicans voting for impeachment would have to watch their back. The unfolding investigation could topple a president, or it could just as easily divide and wound the country even more grievously that it is now.