By David Morgan and Makini Brice
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Democratic-led U.S. House Judiciary Committee asked a federal court on Friday for access to grand jury evidence from the Mueller probe that lawmakers say they need to determine whether to begin impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump.
Democratic lawyers from the House of Representatives filed a 53-page petition in U.S. District Court seeking permission to review evidence involving interactions between Trump campaign officials and Russian agents, and Trump’s alleged efforts to direct former White House Counsel Don McGahn to remove Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
The action moved the House one step closer to impeachment, a politically contentious issue that has divided Democrats as Congress prepares to pivot to the 2020 election season.
“We have just given notice that we are actively considering articles of impeachment … that is as serious a step as we should take at this time,” an attorney for the committee told reporters during a background briefing held after the filing.
A separate committee lawsuit expected early next week to compel McGahn to testify before the panel will also cite the need to decide on impeachment, though McGahn could avoid court action by agreeing to appear as a result of negotiations, aides said.
The grand jury evidence, which is protected from outside scrutiny by federal law, was compiled by Mueller’s 22-month probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and Trump’s efforts to impede the investigation.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler told a news conference that since Justice Department policy prohibits prosecution of a sitting president, the House of Representatives is the only institution of government capable of holding Trump accountable for actions outlined in the Mueller report.
“The House must have access to all the relevant facts and consider whether to exercise its full … powers, including a constitutional power of the utmost gravity: recommendation of articles of impeachment,” Nadler said, reading from the court petition.
Committee aides pushed back on assertions that Congress needs a formal impeachment inquiry to justify accessing grand jury evidence, saying lawmakers have been considering articles of impeachment since February, when the House referred an impeachment resolution to the committee.
To bolster the argument, Democratic lawmakers at Nadler’s news conference described their ongoing obstruction of justice probe against Trump as an “impeachment investigation.”
But the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Representative Doug Collins, criticized Nadler’s move.
“Judiciary Democrats are suing for grand jury material to which they have no right,” he said in a statement. “Chairman Nadler’s legal action here is sure to fail, weakening Congress’s ability to conduct oversight now and into the future.”
Nadler described legal action, including the pending McGahn lawsuit, as a potential watershed that could dismantle recent White House stonewalling tactics that direct current and former Trump aides to defy subpoenas and refrain from testifying.
Mueller testified on Wednesday in back-to-back hearings that Democrats hoped would focus public attention on Trump’s alleged misconduct. But his halting and reticent performance changed few opinions, leaving Democrats to seek court action that could take months to bear fruit.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who opposes impeachment for now as a politically risky move, told reporters she favored litigation to obtain “the best, strongest possible case” against Trump. But with the 2020 election campaign season fast approaching, she also made it clear that the impeachment issue would not be allowed to linger.
“The decision will be made in a timely fashion. This isn’t endless,” Pelosi, while denying suggestions that she was trying to “run out the clock” on impeachment.
Mueller found insufficient evidence to allege that the Trump campaign conspired with Moscow in its effort to help Trump get elected in 2016, although campaign officials met with Russians. He also reached no conclusions on whether Trump tried to obstruct Mueller’s inquiry.
But Democrats say testimony from McGahn could give them the evidence they need for an impeachment inquiry. A star witness in the 448-page Mueller report released in April, McGahn told Mueller that Trump directed him to seek the special counsel’s removal and then to deny that he had been instructed to do so.
McGahn declined to testify earlier this year.
(Reporting by Makini Brice and David Morgan; writing by David Alexander; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Cynthia Osterman)