WASHINGTON (CN) – A federal judge in Washington declared Friday the House is legally engaged in an impeachment inquiry, dismissing arguments from Republicans and the Justice Department that the House Judiciary Committee failed to demonstrate a particularized need for access to evidence.
"These arguments smack of farce," wrote Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell. "The reality is that DOJ and the White House have been openly stonewalling the House's efforts to get information by subpoena and by agreement, and the White House has flatly stated that the Administration will not cooperate with congressional requests for information."
Howell cleared the path Friday for House Democrats to regain momentum lost after the close of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s two-year probe, green-lighting the release of secret material from the investigation’s grand jury.
Howell, a Barack Obama appointee, wrote in her 75-page opinion that the access will now equip lawmakers to gather evidence that the special counsel did not pursue, to answer the ultimate question Mueller left unanswered: whether the president committed an impeachable offense.
“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,” the judge wrote.
Howell ordered the Justice Department to hand over the materials by Oct. 30 and left the door open for the committee to access additional secret records if necessary.
The need for continued secrecy is minimal, the judge said, and “easily outweighed” by the committee’s “compelling need for the material.”
Democrats led by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler filed the request back in July for access to Mueller report material blacked out by redactions.
“The full Mueller report provides an essential roadmap for the committee’s efforts to uncover all facts relevant to Russia’s attack on the 2016 presidential election and to any attempts by the president to prevent Congress from learning the truth about those attacks along with their aftermath,” the application stated.
The move preceded the announcement last month by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that Democrats would launch a formal impeachment inquiry into possible misconduct by President Donald Trump in dealing with Ukraine.
But over the summer, Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee had said they took major steps toward issuing articles of impeachment by filing the application in the U.S. District Court in D.C.
Howell called complete access to Mueller’s report indispensable in light of the heated impeachment proceedings now dominating Washington.
The judge said the point is further illustrated by recent reports that Donald Trump Jr. and former White House counsel Don McGahn were not called to testify before the grand jury.
“The choice not to compel their testimony may indicate, for example, that the special counsel intended to leave aggressive investigation of certain potential criminal conduct, such as obstruction of justice by the president, to Congress,” Howell wrote.
The judge further advised – in a stunning confirmation of the Democrat-led impeachment inquiry – that insight into such intentions by Mueller may be essential to the Democrats’ decisions on which witnesses to question in the current investigation in the president.
Howell also encouraged the Judiciary Committee to apply the newly accessible material from Volume II of the Mueller report to pick up where the special counsel left off.
“The grand jury material relied on in Volume II is indispensable to interpreting the special counsel’s evaluation of this evidence and to assessing the implications of any ‘difficult issues’ for HJC’s inquiry into obstruction of justice,” Howel wrote.
The ruling cites a section of the Mueller report invoking the Justice Department policy prohibiting the special counsel from indicting a sitting president: “The evidence we obtained about the president’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred.”
Neither the House Judiciary Committee nor the Justice Department responded Friday to requests for comment.
The Justice Department shocked Howell in an Oct. 8 hearing when it argued that the same court in 1974 was wrong to release grand jury evidence during Watergate.
“Wow,” Howell had said with a stunned face, adding after a brief pause: “The department is taking extraordinary positions in this case.”
House attorney Douglas Letter countered the claim with arguments that Watergate bolstered Democrats’ defense, as the Justice Department echoed Republicans calling for a formal House vote on impeachment.
“The history is with us, by the way,” Letter said.
President Richard Nixon resigned before the House voted on impeachment. But Letter argued that in the same pattern unfolding in Washington today, House committees were conducting ongoing investigations as the impeachment inquiry in 1974 barreled toward a vote.
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