A grand jury has been set up to look deeper into Russia's alleged interference in America's 2016 presidential election, moving the FBI's investigation into a new and potentially more dangerous phase for President Donald Trump.
Separate reports say the probe, run by a team led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, is now widening to include the sprawling business empire that Mr Trump nominally handed over management of to his sons after his election.
An unfazed Mr Trump took the offensive on Thursday night at a rally in Huntington, West Virginia - the heartland of his support - that attracted a crowd of nearly 10,000, and saw the Democratic governor of the state publicly switch to the Republican Party.
The President touted vigorous job creation and the stock market's record high. But then he lashed out at the Democratic Party. "The Russia story is a total fabrication. They're trying to cheat you out of the leadership that you want with a fake story," he said.
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"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; that is demeaning to all of us," he told the boisterous crowd that repeatedly broke into chants of "USA! USA!".
The grand jury has already begun its work. Its focus, reports say, is a meeting in June last year between the President's son, Mr Donald Trump Jr, and a Russian lawyer apparently offering information damaging to Mr Trump's opponent, Mrs Hillary Clinton.
Setting up a grand jury is no indication of any wrongdoing. It is a tool that enables prosecutors to subpoena documents, call witnesses under oath and seek indictments. "Not sure why all the hyperventilating re: Russia grand jury," former New York prosecutor Preet Bharara tweeted. "Mueller hired 16 prosecutors. Of course there would be (a grand jury). This will take time. This will take time."
How a grand jury works
WASHINGTON • Grand juries comprise anywhere from six to 23 jurors - but usually at least 12 - drawn from ordinary citizens.
They work in secret, insulated from media coverage, with broad powers to subpoena documents and call witnesses to testify under oath, to determine if there is enough evidence of a crime to justify an indictment.
The process is not a trial.
Historically, it enabled Americans chosen as jurors to determine whether a trial should take place, thus functioning as another brake on the power of government, according to the American Bar Association.
The jury decides by a majority vote whether there is enough evidence to lay charges against a person it believes may be guilty of a crime.
Today, some legal observers fear that grand juries have become simply a tool of prosecutors and that grand jurors have lost their independence, the American Bar Association said on its website. Others believe grand juries still serve a valuable oversight function.
The grand jury process is a long one, and can take months or even years.
The President's senior adviser, Ms Kellyanne Conway, told CNN: "These types of endeavours end up being fishing expeditions, they are a very broadly cast net. Anything that accelerates the process is agreed to by us, and at the White House, and we'll continue to fully comply." But she added: "I think people are just talking about an investigation that exists, but looking for collusion and conclusions that don't exist."
Separately, ahead of its August recess and the President's 17-day vacation starting this weekend, the Senate in a bipartisan move blocked Mr Trump from being able to make any appointments during the break. The move is seen as an attempt to prevent him from replacing his Attorney-General and firing Special Counsel Mueller while the Senate is on holiday.
Law professor Michael Gerhardt of the University of North Carolina's School of Law told The Straits Times in an e-mail: "It is still too soon to know what, if any, dangers the special counsel's investigation represents. Obviously, convening a grand jury means some possible indictments might be forthcoming, but we don't know who and for what.
"As for the President, his instincts are to control the narrative. Every day he will feel greater pressure to deflect the investigation... With every step Mueller's investigations advance, they are likely to make it harder for the President to stay his hand and not take further action to stop them."
Trump pins rocky Russia relations on Congress. str.sg/4zz4