The State Department is refusing to hand over documents that could contain evidence in the House impeachment inquiry.
A judge on Wednesday ordered the State Department to begin producing within 30 days documents related to the Trump administration's dealings with Ukraine, saying the records were of obvious public interest.
The documents were sought under a Freedom of Information Act request by American Oversight, an ethics watchdog that investigates the administration. Any release of government documents could shed new light on Donald Trump's efforts to prod his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden, the matter at the heart of the Democrat-led House impeachment inquiry.
"These records concern a matter of immense public importance," Daniel McGrath, a lawyer for American Oversight, said during arguments in Washington's federal court. U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper said he agreed.
Cooper encouraged the organization to work with the government to identify which documents can be released because they are not classified or otherwise exempt from disclosure. That could potentially include any correspondence with Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer and a key participant in a backchannel diplomacy effort with Ukraine, since he is not an administration official.
"His emails, text messages — which he showed on TV — are going to be subject to public disclosure with limited redactions," Austin Evers, the organization's executive director, told reporters after the hearing. "It's possible that this administration will jump through some legal hoops to try to withhold them, but we have the court today urging the parties to focus on those communications as top priority."
He described the judge's ruling as "a crack in the administration's stone wall."
Among the records the group asked for are documents related to interactions between Giuliani and Ukraine, as well as documents about the recall of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch.
The government has said it does not know how many records could be covered by the ruling. Lawyers said they have identified thousands of potential hits for documents related to Giuliani and Yovanovitch, but that could include duplicates as well as attachments.
Meanwhile, three committees leading the impeachment investigation are asking the State Department for documents they say are central to the probe's "core area of investigation" after the department defied a subpoena to provide them.
The House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, and Oversight and Reform panels said in a letter Wednesday that they have "now obtained detailed information identifying specific documents" in the department's custody. They include written readouts of meetings and conversations that are part of the inquiry, as well as emails, texts and diplomatic cables.
The committees are investigating Trump's requests for Ukraine to investigate Biden's family and actions by Democrats in the 2016 election.
The panels wrote that they "may draw the inference that their nonproduction indicates that these documents support the allegations against the president and others."
Evers said his organization was committed to helping the American public see the same type of documents that the State Department has yet to produce to Congress.
If Secretary of State Mike Pompeo "wants to fight so hard" to keep records out of the hands of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, "we're happy to be in court," Evers said.