White House as crime scene: how Robert Mueller is closing in on Trump
There is a grand jury in Washington DC. The special counsels team is full of experts in financial crime. On Russia, the president can feel the net closing
The legal net around Donald Trumps 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 teams 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, Republicans in 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.
Muellers investigators are reported by the New York Times to have asked the White House for documents related to the administrations first, short-lived national security adviser, 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 says 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, Muellers 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 9 May. Trump denies trying to coerce Comey into dropping the case but this is not simply one mans word against anothers. 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 Nixons presidency. It is increasingly possible the same fate could befall Trump.
On Tuesday, after adamant denials from Trumps lawyer, the White House admitted that Trump had weighed in as any father would in drafting a misleading statement about his sons 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 Jrs rapid emailed response to the Russian offer of dirt on Clinton If its what you say I love it suggests at least an appetite for collusion, like his fathers own call a month later, in July 2016, for Russia to find thousands of Clintons missing emails. The Trump campaign later denied that public appeal represented an encouragement for Moscow to hack his opponents private server. Trump Jr has claimed nothing came of the June meeting with Veselnitskaya.
Grand jury subpoenas could oblige the presidents son and other participants at the meeting, including Trumps 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 arent 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.