A federal judge ordered House investigators be given access to grand jury material and testimony from former special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
The ruling from U.S. District Court Chief Judge Beryl Howell, which requires the Justice Department to provide the redacted information in Mueller’s report to the House Judiciary Committee by Oct. 30, is a victory for the Democrat-led impeachment proceeding. The judge ordered DOJ to hand over any transcripts or exhibits referenced in the redacted parts of the Mueller report too.
“The need for continued secrecy is minimal and thus easily outweighed by [House Judiciary Committee’s] compelling need for the material. Tipping the scale even further toward disclosure is the public’s interest in a diligent and thorough investigation into, and in a final determination about, potentially impeachable conduct by the president described in the Mueller Report,” Howell wrote.
In making their case, the Judiciary Committee, led by Chairman Jerry Nadler, asserted the inquiry was an “impeachment investigation” and was undergoing preliminary steps to “judiciary proceeding.” House Democrats insisted the action fulfilled an exception to federal grand jury secrecy regulations.
The Justice Department fought against allowing Democratic investigators from obtaining the grand jury material, arguing that a formal impeachment inquiry was never initiated because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did not hold a vote on it.
Howell called this reasoning “fatally flawed,” noting the “precedential support cited for the ‘House resolution’ test is cherry-picked and incomplete, and more significantly, this test has no textual support in the U.S. Constitution, the governing rules of the House, or Rule 6(e), as interpreted in blind decisions.”
The House Judiciary Committee, Howell wrote, “has shown that it needs the grand jury material referenced and cited in the Mueller Report to avoid a possible injustice in the impeachment inquiry, that this need for disclosure is greater than the need for continued secrecy.”
The Trump administration could appeal the decision. The Justice Department is reviewing the decision, an agency spokesperson told the Washington Examiner.
Nadler said he is “gratified” by Howell’s order. “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. This grand jury information that the Administration has tried to block the House from seeing will be critical to our work,” the New York Democrat said in a statement.
Last month the House Democrats told the court the redacted material they sought was essential because they could “demonstrate the President’s motives for obstructing the Special Counsel’s investigation, they also could reveal that Trump was aware of his campaign’s contacts with WikiLeaks.”
The Justice Department countered that “the need to ensure that all charged defendants receive fair trials and the need to preserve the integrity of ongoing investigations far outweigh the [Judiciary] Committee’s asserted need for the requested materials” and also argued congressional impeachment proceedings are not official “judicial proceedings” and so the demand by the Democrats for grand jury material should be rejected.
The Democrats pushed back, arguing the text of the Constitution states Senate impeachment proceedings are trials and added that “the Executive Branch has never before objected to the disclosure of grand jury material to the House for an impeachment inquiry.”
Twelve leaders in Congress, six Democrats and six Republicans in the House and Senate, were offered access earlier this year by Attorney General William Barr to a less-redacted version of Mueller’s 448-page report. Only two Republicans — Sen. Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Doug Collins, the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee — said they viewed the redacted material.
Pelosi announced an “official impeachment inquiry” one month ago, spurred by a spiraling controversy over a phone call President Trump had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and is looking into whether the president abused his power by pressuring a foreign government to conduct investigations that would be politically advantageous to him. DOJ has sought to distance itself from actions taken by Trump, his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, and diplomats in the State Department.
Six committees were originally tasked with conducting the impeachment proceeding, led by the House Intelligence Committee. With depositions with key diplomats underway, Republicans have raged against the process, calling for a formal vote to start an impeachment inquiry and criticizing a lack of wide-spread access to the proceeding.
The White House has voiced its dismay too. An Oct. 8 letter from White House Counsel Pat Cipollone to House Democratic leaders slammed the informal impeachment process as “constitutionally illegitimate.” Citing this letter, Howell issued a stern rebuke of the White House and the DOJ for resisting requests for information and subpoenas, stating that this “stonewalling” factored heavily into her ruling.
“The White House’s stated policy of non-cooperation with the impeachment inquiry weighs heavily in favor of disclosure. Congress’s need to access grand jury material relevant to potential impeachable conduct by a President is heightened when the Executive Branch willfully obstructs channels for accessing other relevant evidence,” Howell wrote.
Howell is the chief judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. She was appointed to the District Court by former President Barack Obama in 2010.
A ruling last week by Howell forced the Justice Department to reveal that neither former White House Counsel Don McGahn nor Donald Trump Jr. testified in front of Mueller’s grand jury during his two-year investigation.
Mueller’s report, which was released in April, concluded that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election through a series of cyber attacks and social media disinformation campaigns, but the special counsel did not establish any criminal collusion between the Kremlin and any members of the Trump campaign.