Judge hands Democrats a victory in impeachment inquiry

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listens during a cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House October 21, 2019. Trump held a cabinet meeting to discuss his administration’s agenda and made extensive remarks about impeachment and the situation on the Syrian/Turkish border. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (AP) — A judge on Friday ordered the Justice Department to give the House secret grand jury testimony from special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, handing a victory to Democrats who want it for the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump.

In a ruling that also affirmed the legality of the impeachment inquiry itself, Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell ordered the department to turn over the materials by Oct. 30. A Justice Department spokeswoman said it was reviewing the decision.

The ruling comes as Democrats gather testimony about the Trump administration’s efforts to get Ukraine to investigate political rival Joe Biden and the Democrats. The Mueller materials could reveal previously hidden details to lawmakers about Trump’s actions during the 2016 election and become part of the impeachment push.

The material covered by Howell’s order consists of redacted grand jury material mentioned in Mueller’s report. The Justice Department says that information is the only piece of the document that key lawmakers have not had access to.

In a 75-page ruling accompanying the order, Howell slashed through many of the administration’s arguments for withholding materials from Congress, including that there was need to keep the information secret even though the investigation had ended.

While the Justice Department said it could not provide grand jury material under existing law, “DOJ is wrong,” she wrote.

And though the White House and its Republican allies argued impeachment is illegitimate without a formal vote, she wrote: “A House resolution has never, in fact, been required.”

The judge also rejected the Justice Department’s argument that impeachment does not qualify as a “judicial proceeding.” That distinction matters because, though grand jury testimony is ordinarily secret, one exemption that allows it to be legally disclosed is in connection with a judicial proceeding.

“To the extent the House’s role in the impeachment context is to investigate misconduct by the President and ascertain whether that conduct amounts to an impeachable offense warranting removal from office, the House performs a function somewhat akin to a grand jury,” the judge wrote.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he was pleased by the ruling.

“The court’s thoughtful ruling recognizes that our impeachment inquiry fully comports with the Constitution and thoroughly rejects the spurious White House claims to the contrary,” Nadler said in a statement. “This grand jury information that the Administration has tried to block the House from seeing will be critical to our work.”

Justice Department lawyers argued against providing the materials at a hearing earlier this month. They said House Democrats already had sufficient evidence from Mueller’s investigation, including copies of summaries of FBI witness interviews.

Many of the key witnesses in the Trump orbit, including former White House counsel Don McGahn, submitted to voluntary interviews before Mueller’s team rather than appear before the grand jury, making it unclear how much significant new information tied to the president is contained in the grand jury transcripts.

The department also argued that the House panel could not show how the material would help in the committee’s investigations of Trump.

___

Associated Press Writer Michael Balsamo contributed to this report.

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