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Probe Into Russia's Election Meddling Moves To New Phase

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The investigation into Russia's involvement in the 2016 U.S. election is moving into a new phase. Special Counsel Robert Mueller is using a grand jury in his investigation, which means he can call witnesses, subpoena evidence and make criminal indictments if necessary. President Trump has called the investigation a, quote, "witch hunt." And last night, during a rally in West Virginia, the president suggested the whole thing is a ploy by the Democratic Party.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They can't beat us at the voting booths, so they're trying to cheat you out of the future and the future that you want. They're trying to cheat you out of the leadership you want with a fake story that is demeaning to all of us and, most importantly, demeaning to our country and demeaning to our Constitution.

MARTIN: We're joined now by Tom Dupree. He was deputy assistant attorney general under President George W. Bush. Mr. Dupree, thanks so much for being with us.

THOMAS DUPREE JR: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: What does this mean that Mueller is now going to use a grand jury?

DUPREE JR: Well, I would say it is a significant step but not really a surprising one. Convening a grand jury or presenting information to a grand jury is reasonably common in these types of cases. They give a prosecutor many additional tools that he or she can use to get witness testimony, to obtain documents. So it really just gives a lot more investigatory tools, robust investigatory tools, to move the investigation forward.

MARTIN: Does it absolutely mean that it is becoming a criminal investigation or it's just securing that possibility if it were to become such?

DUPREE JR: Well, it doesn't mean anyone is ultimately going to get indicted at the end of the day. Certainly, they are investigating the possibility of criminal violations. But simply because you take materials to a grand jury or bring witnesses before a grand jury doesn't necessarily mean that they have a particular target in mind or that they're contemplating bringing any particular charges. It's really just another step in the investigatory process.

MARTIN: You've been responsible for managing several significant government cases on behalf of various agencies and the White House. Can you talk a little bit about a specific example, either of a case you were involved in or another one, when a grand jury proved to be invaluable?

DUPREE JR: Well, it was the case that is well-known. I was not personally involved in it, but if you look back to the Whitewater investigation, which obviously was another example where you had an independent counsel probing what at least began as a fairly complex set of financial transactions...

MARTIN: We should just say - this was the investigation, for those who don't remember, the investigation in the 1990s into Hillary Clinton, President Bill Clinton and their past real estate holdings.

DUPREE JR: That's exactly right. And it really began as an investigation into a very complicated set of financial transactions down in Arkansas. And ultimately, the investigation wound up expanding to encompass the whole Monica Lewinsky situation.

But that was a case where they did use a grand jury, where they had witnesses testify before the grand jury. And ultimately, it did result in indictments of people, not to say it always does or necessarily does, but that certainly is one possible outcome.

MARTIN: Which is why there have been those out there who have suggested that the investigation could expand, that with a grand jury, as you just noted, it started as an investigation into real estate, ended up - blue dress, Monica Lewinsky - in a very different place.

So the grand jury here, in this case, the genesis could be the Russian meddling. But who knows where it could go? And there are concerns for some Trump supporters that it could end up focusing on perhaps the president's own financial dealings, something that would have nothing to do with a Russia investigation.

DUPREE JR: I think that is a very real risk for the administration. If you look back at our history, not just the Whitewater investigation but the Iran-Contra investigation went on far longer than anyone ever anticipated. And that really is the danger is when you start bringing witnesses in, you start getting documents, you have people testifying under oath, very often in the course of that, you'll uncover something new that begins a new investigatory thread, as it were, that the prosecutors then want to pursue.

So it can become a very, very dangerous situation for anyone who is under investigation or for the White House, in this case, because you never know where it's going to lead. And of course, the special counsel himself has a very broad mandate to investigate anything that he uncovers in the course of his search.

MARTIN: What do you make of the president's public comments about the investigation? I mean, his lawyers, we understand, have encouraged him to perhaps be less vocal about his public remarks. I mean, he's called this thing a witch hunt - even as recently as last night, called the coverage of this story totally illegitimate, a total fabrication. Is he helping himself, or is he hurting himself?

DUPREE JR: Well, I - look, if I were the president's lawyer (laughter), I would be encouraging him to slow down a little bit in this area on the tweets. But the president has shown one thing, that he really is irrepressible when it comes to this area, and he's going to say what he wants to say.

Now, that said, I think what we're seeing by the White House is kind of some - an early attempt, really, to go after just the legitimacy of this very investigation. We've seen them attack the prosecutors - the prosecutorial team that Mueller has assembled, arguing that they themselves, many of them, are partisans. We've seen them attack the very basis for probing the Russian deal in the first place - or the Russian connections in the first place.

So I think it is a political strategy, at this point, much more than a legal strategy. They're clearly trying to lay the groundwork for discrediting the investigation in the public eye as nothing more than a Democrat-inspired partisan witch hunt. We'll see how that plays out. It's not a legal strategy, really, as much as a PR one.

MARTIN: Tom Dupree is a former deputy assistant attorney general. He served in the administration of President George W. Bush. We've been talking about Robert Mueller, the special counsel in the Russia investigation - his decision to use a grand jury. Thanks so much for your time this morning, Mr. Dupree.

DUPREE JR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.