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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.
The Democratic-led U.S. House Judiciary Committee asked a federal court on Friday for access to grand jury evidence from the Mueller probe as lawmakers there move one step closer to impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump.
Democratic lawyers from the House of Representatives filed a 53-page petition to the 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 from the massive investigation he led into the president between May 2017 and March of this year.
"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 court filing.
We are intensifying efforts to hold @realDonaldTrump accountable as we move forward with our investigation. Today we made clear to the court that we are considering impeachment, along with other options, under Article I powers. No one is above the law. pic.twitter.com/IOmFqKq5q3
A separate committee lawsuit, expected early next week to compel McGahn to testify before the house panel, will also cite the need to decide on impeachment proceedings. However, McGahn could avoid a court hearing if he agrees 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 regarding outside intervention into the 2016 presidential election and Trump's efforts to impede the same investigation.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler told reporters that since justice department policy prohibits prosecution of a sitting president, the House of Representatives is the only institution 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.
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," said the legislator 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 in the case.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has opposed talk of presidential impeachment, told reporters she favored litigation to obtain "the best, strongest possible case" against Trump. Yet, with 2020 election campaigns already underway, she also made it clear that the impeachment issue could not 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’s 448-page report, released in redacted form April 18, did not reach a conclusion on whether Trump committed the crime of obstruction of justice in a series of actions aimed at impeding the inquiry, but did not exonerate him.
Still, 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 to the house earlier this year.