The one thing we can know for certain now that we’ve learned that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has impaneled a grand jury is that he is conducting a criminal investigation. A counter-intelligence investigation doesn’t require a grand jury.
Beyond that, we are left to speculate and process the leaks that emerge. As Martin noted, the Wall Street Journal story that broke the news about the grand jury stated that it began its work “a few weeks ago.” Reuters followed that up with the news that subpoenas had been issued “in connection with the June 2016 meeting between Donald Trump Jr., a Russian lawyer and others.” To connect the dots, we should note that the story about that meeting broke in the New York Times on July 8th—almost 4 weeks ago. It was reported at the time that Mueller’s team was previously unaware of the meeting, so it could have been the impetus for impaneling the jury.
Years ago I served on a federal grand jury. Because I wasn’t as aware of how they differed from trial juries at the time, I learned very quickly about the origin of that old saying that a grand jury could indict a ham sandwich. That’s because the only people you hear from are prosecutors and occasionally a witness they bring in to question.
Over the course of serving almost a year, we didn’t hand down many indictments. I also learned that grand juries mostly serve the purpose of issuing subpoenas to gather evidence that hasn’t been provided voluntarily. Like indictments, these requests from prosecutors are pretty rubber stamp affairs. They told us why they wanted a subpoena and we complied because a case was never made to withhold them.
The other purpose served by grand juries is to compel testimony under oath. Defense attorneys are not allowed in the room for that questioning by the prosecutor, so it can be a fairly intimidating process for witnesses.
We can speculate that Mueller’s team has reached the stage in this investigation where they have gathered all of the evidence and testimony that has been produced voluntarily. They are now going after documents that have been concealed and putting pressure on witnesses to testify under oath—risking perjury if they don’t tell the truth.
Criminal lawyers tell us that this is likely to be the longest stage in a process that will probably unfold over 12-18 months. Grand jurors are sworn to keep their proceedings secret, but witnesses are free to talk about their questioning—however biased their reporting might be.
With all that said, here’s the bottom line: the president’s campaign is being criminally investigated after only six months in office. This whole affair might feel like it has been interminable already, but it just took a very sharp turn.