In this column, Due Diligence, erstwhile attorney and GQ staff writer Jay Willis untangles the messy intersection of law, politics, and culture.
At the tail end of his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee earlier this year, Florida Democratic congressman Val Demings asked then-special counsel Robert Mueller if he could be confident that President Donald Trump, in his written responses to questions about Russian interference in the 2015 election, had told the whole truth.
"There were many answers that contradicted evidence you had found during the investigation—isn't that correct?" she asked. "Isn't it fair to say that the president's written answers were not only inadequate and incomplete...but where he did [answer], his answers showed that he wasn't always being truthful?" Although Mueller passed on many questions that afternoon, citing to ongoing law enforcement investigations he couldn't jeopardize, the longtime FBI director offered simple, straightforward answers to Demings's pair of inquiries about the president's dishonesty: "Yes," and "generally," he said.
Along with his report, Mueller's testimony did not prompt House Democrats to launch an impeachment inquiry of President Trump. But during a hearing on Monday, a lawyer representing Congress told a panel of three federal appeals court judges that the House has incorporated Trump's potential perjury into its probe of his efforts to extort Ukraine, too. “Was the president not truthful in his responses to the Mueller investigation?” asked Douglas Letter, general counsel to the House of Representatives, according to the New York Times. “I believe the special counsel said the president had been untruthful in some of his answers.”
Letter's revelation came as part of the House's efforts to obtain the evidence Mueller presented to the grand jury during his investigation—evidence that led to guilty pleas from or convictions of Trump's former national security advisor (Michael Flynn), campaign chair (Paul Manafort), personal lawyer (Michael Cohen), and shadowy fixer (Roger Stone), among others. This includes portions of the Mueller report that were redacted from the publicly-available version, along with the transcripts of closed-door witness testimony that went into the report's formulation. To the judges, Letter described the House's need for this material as "immense."
The materials at stake likely relate to the president's alleged advance knowledge of WikiLeaks' publication of e-mails stolen from Hillary Clinton. In his answers to Mueller, Trump said he was in the dark about whether anyone on his campaign was in touch with the hackers. But the indictment of Stone, who was found guilty last week of crimes that include witness tampering and making false statements to law enforcement, indicates that Trump perhaps knew more about Stone's back-channel communications with WikiLeaks than he let on. Now that the Stone prosecution is over, presumably, keeping that information under wraps is no longer as important. As the Times notes, the grand jury materials may also yield information about Trump's alleged attempts to fire Mueller, to discourage confidants from cooperating with the investigation, and to otherwise obstruct justice.
Typically, evidence presented to a grand jury is confidential, for a number of common-sense reasons: to prevent subjects of investigations from tampering with witnesses, for example, and to safeguard the reputations of people who aren't ultimately indicted. (If a grand jury eventually decides you didn't rob a bank, but this link between your name and bank robbery leaks, some people are nevertheless going to forever see you as the Maybe Bank Robber.) The rule also protects the integrity of criminal trials, since the standards for admitting information as evidence in court are higher than the standards for using information to investigate or charge someone.
In certain circumstances, courts can make exceptions to this principle of secrecy. Otherwise, during the usual course of business, what happens in the grand jury room stays in the grand jury room. Thus far, Trump attorney general and quasi-personal lawyer Bill Barr has blocked his Department of Justice from releasing Mueller's grand jury materials to Congress—a position consistent with the White House's public pledge not to cooperate with any aspect of the inquiry.
The impeachment of a president, however, is hardly the usual course of business. And as far as rationales for disclosure go, a request pursuant to an official inquiry into a president's commission of high crimes and misdemeanors is a pretty compelling one. During the impeachment of President Richard Nixon, a court considering this question sided with the House Judiciary Committee, writing that it would be "incredible" to prevent Congress from accessing at grand jury materials "in a proceeding of so great import as an impeachment investigation."
Last month, a federal judge ruled that Trump's DOJ, too, must comply with lawmakers' requests, since keeping grand jury materials under wraps would functionally allow the White House "to wall off any evidence of presidential misconduct from the House by placing that evidence before a grand jury." Monday's hearing was part of the administration's appeal of that decision. However the three-judge panel comes down, the losing party will almost certainly appeal to the full Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and perhaps to the U.S. Supreme Court beyond that.
Regardless of how this particular legal skirmish unfolds, it is an important development in the impeachment inquiry's evolution. Even before House Democrats officially launched the current inquiry in response to the Trump-Ukraine scandal, there was considerable uncertainty about to whether they would keep the scope narrow, or take a hard look at other episodes of presidential wrongdoing, too. Monday's hearing makes clear that they're looking at more than just that.
As a movie icon, a global pop icon, and an internet-melting fashion icon, nobody owned 2019 quite like Jennifer Lopez.
Originally Appeared on GQ