Special Counsel Robert Mueller did something this week that is fairly regular in federal criminal investigations that can run into political headwinds: he impaneled a grand jury to assist him with the probe. Nothing here is out of the ordinary; special prosecutors, independent counsels and U.S. Attorney’s across the country present suspicions to grand juries. And the prosecutors offering up the information are given such benefit of the doubt by the grand jurors that there would really need to be a monumental screw-up for the panel to not return an indictment. Therein lies the old slogan, “a grand jury can indict a ham sandwich” if they wanted to.
The media, however, reported the formation of a grand jury as some kind of breakthrough in the case — as if President Donald Trump, Don Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, or anyone else under Mueller’s microscope are a few days away from a federal indictment. This was the only story that CNN covered on its prime time programming last night. Bloggers, columnists and reporters at the Washington Post, Politico and many other publications were posting story after story on Mueller’s decision. News that a grand jury has already subpoenaed records related to Don Jr’s meeting with a Kremlin-linked lawyer in Trump Tower last summer gave the story a greater sense of urgency.
But here’s the thing: while creating a grand jury may seem like a big step, it’s law 101 for federal attorneys or special prosecutors tasked with investigating a very complicated case and determining whether an indictment is called for. Bob Mueller is in charge of exactly that kind of case, and the terms of his appointment allow him to investigate pretty much anything he wants unless the topic is so far out of bounds that the Attorney General (in this instance, Rod Rosenstein) overrules him. Mueller’s investigative remit is gigantic: “any links an or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump;” and “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”
Trump’s finances, tax returns, past business dealings with Russians, his motives in firing former FBI Director James Comey, the actions and conversations of anybody connected to Trump’s presidential campaign, and anything that may pop up during Mueller’s inquiry are all fair game. Impaneling a grand jury speeds up the work and provides Mueller with the hammer he needs to force testimony from witnesses or persons of interest and force the production of documents, electronic or non-electronic. Unless the individual being subpoenaed is willing to face jail time for contempt of court, refusing to produce those documents isn’t an option.
In a way, it’s not hard to see why the media was going crazy with the news last night. Mueller’s decision to call a grand jury means that he’s in this investigation for the long haul, may request criminal indictments on some of Trump’s inner circle at the end of his investigation, and wants everyone even loosely under scrutiny that they should prepare to cooperate fully. But it would wrong to report this event as the start of the dam breaking or as the beginning of the end for Trump’s White House.
We remain far, far away from that point – if it even comes. The media hyping this story is misleading, and it only allows Trump to continue demoting honorable reporters as agents of the “fake news.”