'Wow': Trump's Justice Department just stunned a federal judge with a defense that would have protected Nixon

'Wow': Trump's Justice Department just stunned a federal judge with a defense that would have protected Nixon
Washington, DC. USA. 1990 Former President Richard Milhous Nixon during visit to capital hill. Shutterstock
Washington, DC. USA. 1990 Former President Richard Milhous Nixon during visit to capital hill. Shutterstock

President Donald Trump's Justice Department is fighting to protect him from the House's ongoing impeachment inquiry, and on Tuesday, it stunned a federal judge by arguing to overturn a precedent set during Watergate.

Lawyers of the DOJ argued that the House should not be able to obtain the grand jury materials related to Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, which are typically protected by federal secrecy rules. But lawyers for the House argued that the current impeachment inquiry constitutes a form of a judicial proceeding that permits disclosure of the grand jury information.

There's precedent to support this argument. During the Watergate investigations, Congress obtained grand jury information related to the special prosecutor's investigation of President Richard Nixon as a part of its impeachment proceedings.

But Justice Department lawyers on Tuesday told U.S. District Court Judge Beryl Howell in Washington D.C. that former Chief Judge John Sirica's decision to release those materials should have had a different result if decided today. CNN reported:

 Sirica had ruled to give a secret grand jury report to Congress as it investigated Nixon. Its release bolstered impeachment so much it was called the “Watergate roadmap.”

Howell asked twice, “Was former Judge Sirica wrong?"

Justice Department attorney Elizabeth Shapiro said the Nixon-era judge wasn’t wrong at the time, but the Watergate grand jury decision by the court may have resulted differently today.

"Wow, OK," Howell said, according to multiple reports.  "As I said, the department is taking an extraordinary position in this case."

The grand jury materials in the Watergate case, known as the "roadmap," were recently made public. Nixon, of course, resigned before there was a full impeachment vote in the House of Representatives or a trial in the Senate.

But there are increasing signs that the Republican Party of the Trump era would have let Nixon get away with his crimes, regardless of the evidence against him.

“You know, if it wasn’t [for] your show, Sean, they would destroy him absolutely,” Geraldo Rivera recently said to Fox News host Sean Hannity. “You are the difference between Donald J. Trump and Richard Nixon.”

For all that, though, it's not clear how much the grand jury materials really matter in this case. The Mueller report on its own is a damning indictment of Trump's behavior. A few more details might round out the picture of his misconduct, but they wouldn't alter Mueller's final conclusions. And the story that is really driving Trump's impeachment now is his improper attempts to pressure Ukraine into investigating Joe Biden, rather than the conduct at the center of the Mueller investigation.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details to clarify the Justice Department's position on the "roadmap" decision.

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