House lawsuit seeks grand-jury evidence
WASHINGTON – The House of Representatives filed a federal lawsuit Friday seeking grand-jury evidence that contributed to former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, a key chairman announced.
House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said the evidence is necessary for Congress to investigate potential obstruction of justice and abuse of power by President Donald Trump.
“No one can be above the law, not even President Trump,” said Nadler, flanked at a Capitol news conference by other Democrats on the panel.
Trump has repeatedly dismissed the Mueller inquiry and its resulting congressional probes as an unjustified witch hunt and partisan harassment.
Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the committee, said House Democrats have no right to the grand-jury material, particularly under a recent decision by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals that ruled judges lack the authority to grant access to the evidence.
“Chairman Nadler’s legal action here is sure to fail, weakening Congress’ ability to conduct oversight now and into the future,” Collins said. “Democrats want to convince their base they’re still wedded to impeachment even after this week’s hearing, but a baseless legal claim is an odd way to show that.”
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Grand-jury evidence is typically confidential when it doesn’t lead to criminal charges. Attorney General William Barr blacked out portions of Mueller’s 448-page report that dealt with grand-jury evidence. But a federal court could potentially order the release to Congress of the evidence, as happened during investigations of former presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.
Nadler said the evidence will cover elements of Mueller’s investigation which didn’t yield charges, such as a former Trump campaign manager providing polling information to Russians or payments to the president that appeared to violate the emoluments clauses of the Constitution.
“It’s at the foundation,” Nadler said of the Mueller evidence, without knowing precisely what the evidence will reveal. “It’s the next step in our investigation.”
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Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, said the court filing represented an escalation of the investigation into Trump.
“We are crossing a threshold, absolutely,” Escobar said.
Barr hasn’t supported the release of grand-jury evidence from the Mueller report and Nadler said the attorney general might oppose the move.
But Nadler said the grand-jury evidence will help the House decide whether to pursue impeachment, which some Democrats have urged, or other remedies.
“We will continue to seek testimony from key fact witnesses,” Nadler said. “That information is critically important for our ability to examine witnesses, including former White House counsel Don McGahn, and to investigate the president’s misconduct.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Wednesday that committees are still laying the groundwork for their investigations to gather information, including through subpoenas and litigation, before making a judgment.
“The stronger our case is the worse the Senate will look for just letting the president off the hook,” Pelosi said.
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The 53-page lawsuit states: “Because Department of Justice policies will not allow prosecution of a sitting president, the United States House of Representatives is the only institution of the federal government that can now hold President Trump accountable for these actions. To do so, the House must have access to all the relevant facts and consider whether to exercise its full Article 1 powers, including a constitutional power of the utmost gravity – approval of articles of impeachment.”
Nadler said the committee also plans to file a lawsuit early next week enforcing its subpoena for McGahn, a key figure in the report that described episodes of potential obstruction of justice.
The White House has blocked current and former administration officials from cooperating with Congress, under the argument that executive privilege or absolute immunity protects the confidentiality of their communications with Trump.
But House Democrats have won lower-court rulings for access to Trump’s financial documents from his accounting firm Mazars and from Deutsche Bank. The president has appealed. Nadler said winning enforcement of the McGahn subpoena could break the logjam of White House resistance.
McGahn was a key figure in former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report detailing episodes of potential obstruction of justice in the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Mueller filed no charges against Trump for obstruction and Trump called the entire inquiry a witch hunt and partisan hoax.
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But Democrats have focused on the 10 episodes of potential obstruction described in the Mueller report for their continuing investigation of Trump.
On June 17, 2017, Trump called McGahn at home and directed him to call the acting attorney general and say that Mueller had conflicts of interest and must be removed. But McGahn did not carry out the direction, deciding that he would resign rather than trigger what he regarded as a potential Saturday Night Massacre, a reference to Nixon firing investigators during Watergate.
In early 2018, when reporters described Trump’s attempt to remove Mueller, the president told White House officials to tell McGahn to dispute the story and create a record stating he had not been ordered to remove Mueller. But McGahn told the officials that the news reports were accurate.
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Trump asked McGahn in the Oval Office to deny the reports, but McGahn refused. McGahn perceived the president was “testing his mettle,” according to the Mueller report.
The lawsuit to enforce the McGahn subpoena follows a move by the full House to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt for defying subpoenas dealing with a citizenship question for the census. The Justice Department declined to pursue criminal charges against Barr and Ross.
The department negotiated a settlement in June with the House Judiciary Committee to share key evidence from the Mueller inquiry, to avoid the full House voting to hold McGahn in contempt. But the lawsuit represents an escalation in the request for information.
The Judiciary Committee issued another 12 subpoenas earlier this month for information from the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and top executives from the company that owned the National Enquirer.
More about court fights between Congress and President Donald Trump:
White House tells Don McGahn, former counsel, not to testify to House panel
House panel OKs 12 subpoenas for Trump associates, including Kushner, National Enquirer executives
‘Slow-motion constitutional car crash’: Trump, Congress battle over investigations with no end in sight