STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
House investigators get some of what they wanted from the Trump administration. The House Judiciary Committee made an agreement with the Justice Department. Dropping some of their earlier resistance, the Justice Department says it will provide some underlying evidence from the special counsel's investigation. This is evidence, we believe, relating to the examination of obstruction of justice by the president and people around the president.
George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley is among those watching this case. He's in our studios. Good morning.
JONATHAN TURLEY: Good morning.
INSKEEP: Is it appropriate for the Democrats to get these documents?
TURLEY: I think it certainly is. And they would have ultimately prevailed. This is part of the traditional struggle that occurs between these two branches over access to material. It often takes a great deal of time. In the Obama administration, there was a colossal fight over Fast and Furious, a scandal involving gunrunning.
TURLEY: That took 18 months, and the Obama administration never did turn over all the material. This has moved at a much faster pace. You know? With Eric Holder, who was held in contempt, they took that 18 months. In this case, they moved within a couple weeks from the demand to a contempt vote.
INSKEEP: Although this is still a relatively limited agreement - right? We're not even entirely clear which documents the House committee - the Judiciary Committee will get to look at from the Mueller investigation.
TURLEY: It is. The - this is not that dissimilar from what the Justice Department floated on May 7 to the House and said we'll let you look at a less redacted report, and then we can talk about the documents that you want to read. Here, they're basically agreeing upfront that 41 committee members will be able to look at those documents over at the Department of Justice, take notes. But those notes have to be secured, and a few staffers will also be allowed in. The White House itself may have the ability to invoke executive privilege, so this is very limited.
It's also important to remember that they released 98% of the report already to select committee members and 92% was released to the public. What remains, that largest group, is grand jury material. And these committee members apparently will not get that material. That has not changed.
INSKEEP: And that is understandable and is part of the reason that there was a conflict here. Is it understandable, also, though, that members of the public - not just partisans, but members of the public - would want to see everything they can because, as the Mueller report documented, the president did take a lot of actions to restrict the investigation of him? His attorney general has said he's independent but has repeated the president's catchphrases and happened to decide on the president's side of the question multiple times. You'd want someone who's more independent to have a look at this information.
TURLEY: There's no question that the public has legitimate interest in these documents and that Congress has oversight authority to get these documents. It's just that this could take a long time, these challenges. If you go to court, it's like invading Russia in winter. It takes a very long time.
But the question that a lot of people are asking is - what are we doing? What is the purpose here? Is it real or recreational? Are they trying to actually move towards impeachment, or is this bread and circus politics? And it's clear that the speaker does not want to move towards impeachment. The House Judiciary members do. And it's like that wonderful scene in that film noir "Out Of The Past" in 1947, when Robert Mitchum's co-star says - is this the way to win? - and he goes, no, but there's a way to lose more slowly.
TURLEY: And you know - and so I think that Nancy Pelosi's view is we could lose more slowly, do a lot of damage here but not impeach him.
INSKEEP: OK. So first, I'm glad to mention film noir on the radio and glad to hear about Robert Mitchum in terms of current news, so thank you very much for that. But let me ask you as somebody who's a legal scholar who's followed this for a long time, who has weighed in on impeachments before. If I'm not mistaken, you testified in favor of Bill Clinton's impeachment in the 1990s, and that was a case that centered around obstruction of justice.
Should the House of Representatives, on the merits - not on the politics, but on the merits - be moving toward impeachment of this president based on the evidence we know of the ways that he attempted to obstruct the investigation?
TURLEY: I think there's a legitimate basis for an impeachment inquiry. But what I've said in the past is that if these members truly believe that President Trump has committed a crime - and the speaker said that, and the chairman of the judiciary said that - then I believe they are duty - they have a duty to start an impeachment inquiry if they've reached that conclusion. I'm less convinced on the merits on obstruction. I happen to think that it's a fairly weak obstruction case.
But for - it doesn't really matter. These members believe that this president has committed the crime of obstruction. You're not allowed to point to those people in the Senate and say, I don't think they're going to fulfill their constitutional obligation. Your constitutional obligation in the House is to impeach if you believe a president has committed crimes.
INSKEEP: Let's make sure I understand why you're less convinced. Bill Clinton lied under oath, and you found that to be sufficient for impeachment. The current president fired the FBI director; urged witnesses not to co-operate, not to testify; talked of pardons for witnesses; publicly attacked the investigators. This is a partial list. Why does that not rise to the level of obstruction of justice?
TURLEY: Well, I think that it very well could if we have more evidence. The assumptions that you've made in those statements are contested by the White House on some of those...
INSKEEP: Oh, there's no doubt he fired...
INSKEEP: ...The FBI director. There's no doubt...
TURLEY: No, I know that.
INSKEEP: ...That he urged witnesses not to testify.
TURLEY: But in terms of...
INSKEEP: Nothing there is contested. But go on.
TURLEY: Correct. Well, firing the FBI director, I think, is a dead letter. I don't think that can be the basis of obstruction. There was a great number of people that believe that Comey should be fired. It didn't impact the investigation, ultimately. A special counsel was appointed. And there is a myriad reasons to do it. The real obstruction case centers around the alleged order to fire the special counsel.
TURLEY: And that's the one that the White House has contested. And what they've said is that the president told Don McGahn, the White House counsel, to go to the deputy attorney general and say, I think this guy has a conflict...
TURLEY: ...That he's not an appropriate special counsel. Now, Don McGahn indicates that he took that as, he wanted me to go there and fire him. And that is a legitimate question of obstruction. Now, the devil there is in the details. And that's the reason...
INSKEEP: That the firing didn't take place - is that what ultimately would save the president?
TURLEY: Well - but also, what the White House has argued is that we wanted to raise a conflict of interest, and that's a legitimate thing for us to raise with the deputy attorney general. And we did not order him to be actually fired, and we weren't trying to stop the investigation.
INSKEEP: Jonathan Turley, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.
TURLEY: Thank you.
INSKEEP: He is a law professor at George Washington University and a frequent guest here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.