WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department must give Congress secret grand jury testimony from special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday — giving the House a win in a separation-of-powers clash with the Trump administration.
The three-judge panel said in a 2-1 opinion that House Democrats were entitled to the material as part of their ongoing investigation into President Donald Trump’s conduct. The ruling upholds a lower court opinion from last year.
In her opinion, Judge Judith Rogers wrote that because Mueller himself “stopped short” of reaching conclusions about Trump’s conduct to avoid stepping on the House’s impeachment power, ” the Committee has established that it cannot ‘fairly and diligently’ make a final determination about the conduct described in both volumes of the Mueller Report ‘without the grand jury material referenced’ therein.”
The ruling softens the blow of a loss the House endured two weeks ago when judges on the same court said they would not force former White House counsel Don McGahn to testify before Congress. The split decisions leave neither the administration nor Congress with a clear upper hand in their inter-branch dispute.
Even so, the practical impact of the decision is unclear.
Though lawyers for the Democrats had said the grand jury material could be used for additional articles of impeachment against Trump, the Senate impeachment trial over the president’s interactions with Ukraine ended weeks ago in an acquittal.
The case is one of several disputes between the Trump administration and Congress that courts have grappled with in recent months.
The two sides had been similarly at odds on the question of whether McGahn could be forced to testify about Trump’s behavior during the Russia investigation. The appeals court ruled in a recent 2-1 decision that judges had no role to play in that dispute and dismissed the case.
Grand jury testimony is typically treated as secret, in part to protect the privacy of people who are not charged or are considered peripheral to a criminal investigation. But several exceptions allow for the material to be turned over, including if it is in connection with a judicial proceeding.
The House argued that the impeachment inquiry met that definition, and it sought copies of testimony referenced in Mueller’s 448-page report on Russian election interference and potential obstruction by Trump. U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell sided with the House last October in ordering that the material be turned over.
The Justice Department appealed that decision, with lawyers arguing that the material sought by the House had no relevance to the impeachment inquiry and that the House already had ample information about the investigation.
Several dozen witnesses appeared before Mueller’s grand jury, including former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.