Criminal inquiry on Russia probe launched: US reports

Former special counsel Robert Mueller (right) testified in July before the House Intelligence Committee about his report on Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. The Department of Justice has reportedly opened a criminal inquiry
Former special counsel Robert Mueller (above) testified in July before the House Intelligence Committee about his report on Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. The Department of Justice has reportedly opened a criminal inquiry into the probe on Russian collusion. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Move, if confirmed, represents Trump's counter-attack over alleged collusion

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has opened a criminal inquiry into the investigation on whether President Donald Trump colluded with Moscow during the 2016 presidential election, the United States media reported on Thursday.

The multiple reports citing several sources remained unconfirmed. If true, this would represent a counter-attack by the Trump administration as the President feels growing heat from the impeachment inquiry by the Democratic Party-controlled House.

Five Thirty Eight's public opinion poll tracker shows as of yesterday that 49.1 per cent of Americans support impeachment and 43.5 per cent oppose it - though more support the impeachment inquiry as opposed to actual impeachment.

The most recent Quinnipiac University poll found 48 per cent said Mr Trump should be "impeached and removed from office", while 46 per cent said he should not be.

Attorney-General William Barr earlier this year launched an administrative probe to review Mr Trump's complaints that his 2016 campaign was improperly targeted by US intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

Converting the probe into a criminal investigation would give the investigator, US federal prosecutor John Durham, wider powers to subpoena witnesses and documents.

"It is difficult not to conclude this DOJ under Attorney-General Barr, perhaps more than previous DOJs, is doing the bidding of the President," Cornell University's Professor of American Studies Glenn Altschuler told The Straits Times.

"This is part of the 'whataboutism' that has become a hallmark of the Trump administration."

The threat of impeachment grew this week following testimony on Tuesday from Mr William Taylor, US acting ambassador to Ukraine, that Mr Trump apparently in August wanted Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky to publicly announce inquiries into graft and the gas company Burisma, before getting a White House meeting and security assistance from the US.

While the probability of the President's impeachment in the House has grown, his conviction and removal from office by the Senate remain a remote prospect. A conviction in the Senate requires a two-thirds majority, which means several Republicans would have to desert the President.

Mr Hunter Biden, son of former vice-president Joe Biden, who is leading the pack of Democratic Party contenders for the 2020 nomination, was on the board of Burisma from 2014 to this year.

This has become the focus of Mr Trump's counter-attack on the older Biden.

Republicans have been complaining of a lack of transparency.

In a moment of political theatrics, as Mr Trump demanded more Republicans fight for him, a group of them created a scene by barging into a closed-door hearing on Wednesday.

On Thursday, Senator Lindsey Graham introduced a Senate resolution calling on the House to hold a formal vote to start the impeachment inquiry, and to give Mr Trump "due process" including "the ability to confront his accusers".

 
 

But legal experts say holding a formal vote on opening an inquiry is not required under the Constitution, and the House committees holding hearings are entitled to do so behind closed doors.

But while the probability of the President's impeachment in the House has grown, his conviction and removal from office by the Senate remain a remote prospect.

A conviction in the Senate requires a two-thirds majority, which means several Republicans would have to desert the President.

But there is little tolerance of dissent from Republicans, especially those who face re-election campaigns next year, political pundit Charlie Cook wrote on Thursday in the Cook Political Report.

There is "little reason to think Republicans will abandon Trump now", he concluded.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2019, with the headline 'Criminal inquiry on Russia probe launched: US reports'. Print Edition | Subscribe