House panel votes Barr in contempt over report
The House Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to recommend the House hold Attorney General William P. Barr in contempt of Congress for failing to turn over Robert Mueller’s unredacted report, hours after President Donald Trump asserted executive privilege to shield the full report and underlying evidence from Congress.
The committee’s 24-16 contempt vote, taken after hours of debate that featured ominous language about the future of American democracy, marked the first time that the House has taken official action to punish a government official amid a standoff between the legislative and executive branch. The Justice Department decried it as an unnecessary and overwrought reaction designed to stoke a fight.
The drama raised the stakes yet again in an increasingly tense battle over evidence and witnesses as Democrats investigate Trump and his administration to judge whether to hold the president to account for behavior detailed by Mueller, the special counsel. By the day’s end, it seemed all but inevitable that the competing
claims would have to be settled in the nation’s courts rather than on Capitol Hill, as Democrats had initially hoped after the initial delivery of Mueller’s report.
“Our fight is not just about the Mueller Report – although we must have access to the Mueller report,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., the Judiciary Committee chairman, said during a grueling debate. “Our fight is about defending the rights of Congress, as an independent branch, to hold the president, any president, accountable.”
In other congressional action related to the investigation into Russian election interference, the Senate Intelligence Committee subpoenaed Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, who met with Russians in June 2016 after being promised political dirt about Hillary Clinton, according to people familiar with the committee’s decision.
The Republican-led committee is interested in the younger Trump’s account of the events surrounding that meeting – as well as his role in his father’s efforts to build a skyscraper in Moscow – and comparing the testimony to his previous answers to Senate investigators in 2017.
Donald Trump Jr. is the first of Trump’s children to be subpoenaed in the continuing congressional investigations into Russia’s 2016 election interference. Donald Trump Jr. is a scion of Trump’s global business empire and was one of his father’s close advisers during the 2016 election. A lawyer for the younger Trump declined to comment.
After the House Judiciary vote concluded, Nadler swatted away questions about possible impeachment, but added, “We are now in a constitutional crisis.”
The Justice Department, the White House and House Republicans lined up to contest that claim, shooting back that Democrats were the ones abusing their powers to manufacture a crisis.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, Kerri Kupec, deplored the contempt vote as “politically motivated and unnecessary,” and the two sides traded blame over who had cut off weeks of negotiations over a possible compromise.
“Regrettably, Chairman Nadler’s actions have prematurely terminated the accommodation process and forced the president to assert executive privilege to preserve the status quo,” Kupec said. “No one, including Chairman Nadler and his committee, will force the Department of Justice to break the law.”
Though Trump has repeatedly tried to withhold information from Congress, and pledged an across-the-board objection to House subpoenas, the executive privilege assertion is his first use of the secrecy powers as president.
The Justice Department, which asked the president to step in, described the claim as “protective” to allow Trump time to fully review the materials to make a final privilege determination. But the timing of the assertion signaled that the White House is eager for a fight.
“The American people see through Chairman Nadler’s desperate ploy to distract from the president’s historically successful agenda and our booming economy,” said the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
It was not immediately clear when the full House would vote, and the intervening period could allow Barr time to negotiate. Nadler said he expected a House vote “rapidly.”
After a contempt vote, the House was likely to file a lawsuit seeking to enforce their subpoena, but the ensuing legal process could take years, effectively stalling Democrats’ quest.
Passage of such a resolution would be only the second time in American history that the nation’s top law enforcement official was found to be in contempt of Congress.
The Judiciary Committee was not the only House panel locked in conflict over the material. During the contempt hearing on Wednesday, the Intelligence Committee quietly sent the Justice Department its own subpoena for the full Mueller report and underlying evidence, as well as any counterintelligence and foreign intelligence material generated during the special counsel investigation. The panel likewise blamed the department for failing to accommodate its bipartisan oversight interest in the material and argued that as the body that oversees the intelligence community, it had special authorities to view the secretive material.
“The law is on our side,” said the committee’s chairman, Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California. “The committee’s efforts to obtain necessary documents to do our constitutionally-mandated oversight work will not be obstructed.”
House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., is surrounded by committee staffers Wednesday as he moves ahead with the contempt vote.