Special Counsel Robert Mueller impaneled a federal grand jury in Washington yesterday—signifying a major step in the Justice Department’s investigation of Russian election meddling and potential collusion with the Trump campaign.
What is a grand jury?
At a prosecutor’s discretion, a grand jury is assembled—or impaneled—to examine evidence which may lead to a criminal indictment. It is not a criminal trial, resulting in a verdict of guilt or innocence. While procedural aspects differ between states and at the federal level, the core function of all grand juries is to determine whether the prosecutor’s case against the accused is strong enough to warrant a criminal trial.
Unlike a criminal trial, its proceedings are typically one sided, and while witnesses are questioned, cross-examination is disallowed. An impartial panel of jurors is able to hear a wider spectrum of evidence than is allowed in a criminal trial, including hearsay and unconstitutional surveillance. Defendants and judges typically aren’t present during the proceeding.
If probable cause is found after all the evidence is considered, the grand jury will issue a bill of indictment, which often leads to formal chargers and a criminal trial. Probable cause is a far lower burden than ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’, which is the threshold a prosecutor must meet at any subsequent criminal trial.
For Mueller’s probe, the launching of a grand jury grants him broad investigative powers, including subpoenaing witnesses for documents and testimony. According to the BBC, it’s believed that Mueller and his team of seasoned attorneys are targeting several members of President Trump’s inner circle, including his son, Donald Jr, whose June 2016 meeting with Russian nationals in New York has seen significant scrutiny in recent weeks. However, it is widely believed that the probe will cover a wide range of issues, including potential financial ties between Trump’s business empire and Russia, the May firing of FBI Director James Comey, and the email hacks that targeted the Democratic National Convention and John Podesta during the 2016 election.
As the investigation ramps up in Washington, President Trump once again discredited the allegations of collusion. “They’re trying to cheat you out of the leadership that you want with a fake story,” Trump told a rally in Huntington, West Virginia last night.
However, Trump’s personal attorney, Ty Cobb, struck a more conciliatory tone in a statement released to reports by White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “The White House favors anything that accelerates the conclusion of his [Mueller’s] work fairly.”
On Capitol Hill, a bipartisan effort is underway to pass a bill that would protect the integrity of Mueller’s probe and future independent investigations. Trump has repeatedly hinted at firing Robert Mueller, and several bills are being considered that would prevent such an action without judicial review.