Updated at 5:33 p.m. ET
House Democrats won an important victory in federal court on Friday when a judge ordered the Justice Department to surrender now-secret material from the Russia investigation — and, more broadly, validated the impeachment inquiry into President Trump.
Chief District Judge Beryl Howell signed an opinion that rejected the Justice Department's argument that it must preserve the secrecy of grand jury and other material and denied Republicans' case that House Democrats' inquiry is invalid.
"The need for continued secrecy is minimal and thus easily outweighed by [the House committee's] compelling need for the material," Howell wrote.
She continued: "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."
As special counsel, Robert Mueller worked with a grand jury under Howell's supervision for nearly two years hearing witness testimony, issuing subpoenas and filing criminal charges.
The workings of such grand juries are largely secret, and the Justice Department had argued that it should not give House investigators anything beyond what Mueller had issued publicly already.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., argued that Congress was entitled to all the underlying material and the portions of the Mueller report that had been redacted to protect the grand jury process or for other reasons.
Howell agreed and said the Justice Department must give Nadler's committee the grand jury materials by Wednesday, although it wasn't clear whether Attorney General Bill Barr might ask for more time or appeal the ruling.
Nadler said on Friday afternoon that he was "gratified."
"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," he said. "This grand jury information that the administration has tried to block the House from seeing will be critical to our work."
The Justice Department didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on this story.
NPR Justice reporter Ryan Lucas contributed to this report.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
House Democrats won an important victory in court today. A federal judge in Washington, D.C., has ordered the Justice Department to turn over secret material leftover from the Russia investigation led by former special counsel Robert Mueller. And more broadly, the judge recognized the legal weight of the Democrats' impeachment inquiry. Joining us now to talk about all this is NPR national security editor Phil Ewing.
PHIL EWING, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.
CHANG: All right, so just remind us. What is this case about?
EWING: Well, there were two big questions here. One of them was, as you know very well, when federal prosecutors work with a grand jury, we know when it issues an indictment and sometimes a subpoena. But most of what goes on inside the room is supposed to be secret. But the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Jerry Nadler, said Congress had the right to see not only what came from the grand jury that worked with special counsel Mueller, which was in his indictments and court filings and his big report, but also the workings of the grand jury too and other secret material. The Justice Department said, in court, no, you don't. And that was the source of one of the disputes here today.
CHANG: OK. And what was the other big question in this case?
EWING: It was a little bit broader. It was this question that you've been hearing a lot lately. When does impeachment become impeachment for real? Doug Collins, the top Republican on Nadler's committee, argued, we haven't gotten a vote on whether we're in an impeachment inquiry. And what Collins said was, you know, the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, can't just have a press conference and say that the House is pursuing impeachment. For this to be real in a legal sense, he argued, members have to have a vote. Republicans keep calling this a sham impeachment or a fake impeachment.
EWING: The president and the White House took that position too. And not long ago, they sent a blistering letter to Congress, saying, you're not running any kind of impeachment inquiry that we have to respect. And so we won't. You're not going to get witnesses or documents from us.
CHANG: So what did the judge make of those arguments?
EWING: Well, Chief Judge Beryl Howell in Washington did not agree with those cases that the parties made. She said Democrats have the power to pursue impeachment in the way that they have been and that the administration's choice, in fact, to respond in the way that it has been helped lead her to decide to order the Justice Department to give Nadler this material that he wants.
Let me just read you a bit of what the judge wrote in her opinion today. Quote, "these arguments smack of farce. The reality is the 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," close quote. Now, Judge Howell has ordered the Justice Department give this material from Mueller's investigation to Nadler's committee by next Wednesday.
CHANG: So how does this new development fit into the ongoing story about the impeachment inquiry?
EWING: That's a great question. And what may be more important over the long term, less than the Mueller grand jury material, is the validation that this ruling gives to Democrats' impeachment inquiry. It'll be easier, for example, for Jerry Nadler, the Judiciary Committee chairman, and the speaker, Nancy Pelosi, to point to this ruling and say, you say our impeachment is fake or a sham. I have an opinion here from a federal judge saying that, in fact, it is valid and that we can proceed in the way that we are.
The reasons for which Democrats wanted to impeach Trump have broadened since this dispute went to court and Jerry Nadler began this process. Originally, it was about alleged obstruction of justice by the president. Now we hear much more about the Ukraine affair, obviously. And one concerns that Republicans expressed about this was if you give grand jury material to members of Congress, that sets a precedent, which they don't like. And it also means that it could get out into the open, you know? You could begin to read about this in the newspaper or hear about it on TV. That's been known to happen...
EWING: ...Up on Capitol Hill. And they're concerned about that. But there's something else here, obviously, too. There are witnesses coming in for depositions with the committees doing impeachment, including current and former White House officials. If this position before was that they could not appear because of the, quote-unquote, "sham impeachment," the question now is whether this ruling will change that calculation. And they may, in fact, do these depositions and talk in the way that members of Congress want.
CHANG: That's NPR national security editor Phil Ewing.
EWING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.