Washington is bracing for the first criminal charges linked to Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, even as President Donald Trump continued to claim Sunday the investigations are a “Witch Hunt for evil politics.”
A federal grand jury on Friday approved charges in the investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller, according to several major news outlets, and the allegations could be disclosed Monday, with a suspect taken into custody.
It was not immediately known who is being targeted or the nature of the charges. They are under seal, by order of a federal judge.
But the allegations would mark a significant milestone in Trump’s nine-month White House tenure. He has often disparaged the investigations, Mueller’s and three congressional probes, into links between his campaign and Russia, arguing they are attempts by Democrats to explain his stunning upset of his challenger, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
In a Twitter comment last week, Trump contended, “It is now commonly agreed, after many months of COSTLY looking, that there was NO collusion between Russia and Trump. Was collusion with HC!,” referring to Clinton.
On Sunday, he said he had “never seen such Republican ANGER & UNITY as I have concerning the lack of investigation on Clinton” into her campaign’s funding of research into Trump’s links to Russia, which was started by a conservative news outlet, the Washington Free Beacon, and later continued by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee at what he suggested was a cost of $12 million.
A former British intelligence officer was hired for the investigation and produced what Trump said was a “Fake dossier” about his business ties to Russia, as well as making unsubstantiated claims linking him to Moscow prostitutes.
Trump said Republicans are also angry at the lack of probes into a 2013 uranium deal in which Russia took control of 20 percent of the U.S. production and purported links to funding of Clinton’s charitable foundation, the involvement of former Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey in probing Clinton’s handling of classified material on her private e-mail server when she was the country’s top diplomat from 2009 to 2013, “and so much more.
“Instead they look at phony Trump/Russia ‘collusion,’ which doesn’t exist,” Trump said. “The Dems are using this terrible [and bad for our country] Witch Hunt for evil politics, but the R’s are now fighting back like never before. There is so much GUILT by Democrats/Clinton, and now the facts are pouring out. DO SOMETHING!”
The U.S. intelligence community concluded in early 2017 that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally directed a campaign to undermine U.S. democracy and help Trump win. But none of the months-long probes has been completed yet or reached conclusions, contrary to Trump’s contention.
In addition to examining the Russian involvement, Mueller is probing whether Trump obstructed justice when he fired Comey, who was heading the agency’s Russia investigation before Mueller, a former FBI director, was named to take over.
Trump has said he was thinking of “this Russia thing” when he decided to dismiss Comey last May and a day later boasted to Russian officials in a White House meeting that he had removed “great pressure” from his presidency by ousting Comey. He described Comey as “crazy, a real nut job.”
But days later, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein named Mueller to lead the investigation after Attorney General Jeff Sessions had recused himself, much to Trump’s chagrin, from handling any aspect of the Russia investigation.
Legal experts say the first charges could be against a peripheral figure in the case, with prosecutors using a common strategy to first build their case against lower level officials before focusing on more prominent people.
CNN reported lawyers working on Mueller’s team were seen entering the federal courtroom in Washington, D.C., on Friday, where the grand jury meets to hear testimony.
Mueller is believed to be examining activities of two key Trump campaign officials, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was fired by Trump less than a month after he assumed power for lying to Vice President Mike Pence and other officials about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to Washington, and Michael Manafort, who for a short time last year was Trump’s campaign manager and also had wide lobbying interests in Ukraine and links to Russia.
Some Republicans have begun to call for an end to the investigations, but one key Republican lawmaker, Congressman Trey Gowdy, told Fox News Sunday he would encourage members of his party to give Mueller “a chance to do his job. He hasn’t done anything to cause a lack of confidence in him… he is a pretty apolitical guy.” Gowdy said he opposes cutting Mueller’s funding for the investigation.
Gowdy, as chairman of the House of Representatives government oversight panel, last week opened an investigation into Comey’s and the FBI’s handling of its probe into Clinton’s use of the private email server.