The House Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt for refusing to turn over an unredacted version of the Russia report after an acrimonious session underscoring the country’s widening political divide.
The rare rebuke approved by a party-line vote of 24-16 after five and a half hours of debate triggered a new escalation of tensions between the Trump administration and House Democrats pressing for a deeper examination of the president and his outside business empire.
The contempt citation for Barr is the first in a likely series of punitive actions the House is weighing against the administration, which has sought to limit or deny lawmakers’ access to witnesses and documents.
The worst possible consequences for Barr – criminal prosecution, jail time and/or fines – aren’t likely at all because the Justice Department typically declines to pursue charges for contempt of Congress. Instead, the vote sends perhaps the most powerful message the Congress can muster in its oversight of the executive branch and is a prelude to filing a civil lawsuit for the full report and the underlying evidence that special counsel Robert Mueller collected.
Kerri Kupec, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said Barr made extraordinary efforts to provide Congress and the public details about Mueller’s report.
“The attorney general could not comply with the House Judiciary Committee’s subpoena without violating the law, court rules and court orders and without threatening the independence of the department’s prosecutorial functions,” Kupec said.
Minutes before Wednesday’s hearing, President Donald Trump took the extraordinary action of asserting executive privilege in an attempt to further block Congress from parts of Mueller’s report that Barr redacted.
The clash between the executive and legislative branches sets in motion a constitutional showdown over how much information the Justice Department must provide to Congress. The Judiciary Committee was the first to move to contempt proceedings among a variety of investigations that House committees launched against the president and his administration.
Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., accused the Justice Department of moving forward with a “clear escalation” of differences with the House by asserting executive privilege over the documents sought by the committee. He called the department’s action an “unprecedented obstruction by the administration which has now vowed to block all attempts at government oversight.”
“There can be no higher stakes,” Nadler said after the vote. “We have talked for a long time about approaching a constitutional crisis. We are now in it.”
Before adopting the contempt resolution, the committee voted 20-12 to approve a Nadler amendment that rejected Trump’s claim of executive privilege to block access to the report. Nadler said the privilege assertion is “not a valid claim … because executive privilege has been broadly waived in this case as a matter of law and fact.”
The top Republican on the committee, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, blasted the resolution as a continuation of the Democrats’ “war on the administration” through a “cynical, counterproductive” action.
In addition to voicing their support for Barr, Republicans attacked the language of the subpoena served on the attorney general because it covered grand jury information that is typically among the most protected material in the criminal justice system.
The committee adopted by voice vote an amendment from Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., that clarified that grand jury information won’t be subject to the subpoena unless a federal court approves the release of the information. Collins argued that the amendment made the resolution incompatible with the subpoena.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders repeated Trump’s assertion that Mueller and others should not have to testify before the House and the Mueller report should be the last word on the Russia investigation.
“This is over,” Sanders said. “I am 100% certain Jerry Nadler is not going to find something that Mueller couldn’t.”
The resolution heads to the full House for a vote. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told The Washington Post on Wednesday that Barr should be held in contempt for refusing to release the complete Mueller report to Congress.
Disputes about contempt vote
Throughout the debate, Democrats attacked the administration’s claim of privilege to block access to Mueller’s report.
“This is not about executive privilege, this is about burying the evidence,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif.
“Are you kidding me? You can’t assert executive privilege after the fact,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., noting that Sanders and former White House counsel Don McGahn talked to Mueller.
Republicans accused Democrats of staging political theater rather than pursuing serious government oversight.
Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., said Democrats remain in denial of the president’s election.
“For two years now, there has been this nonstop (claim) that the Trump campaign was colluding with Russia,” Lesko said. “I believe this was done for headlines. This is good political theater, a political show. But are we getting things done? The answer is no.”
Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., accused Democrats of “weaponizing” their majority to take down the attorney general.
Negotiations for settlement collapsed
Justice Department officials met Tuesday with committee staffers to negotiate a possible resolution to the conflict, but the talks were unsuccessful.
“Unfortunately, rather than allowing negotiations to continue, Chairman Nadler short-circuited these efforts by proceeding with a politically motivated and unnecessary contempt vote, which he refused to postpone to allow additional time to explore discussion and compromise,” Kupec said Wednesday.
Nadler said Barr’s failure to comply with a subpoena for the full report left no choice but to initiate contempt proceedings.
“This obstruction would mean the end to government oversight,” he said, urging members to “stand up” to the administration.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said the president intended to “take a wrecking ball to the Constitution of the United States.” She referred to a petition signed by hundreds of federal prosecutors who asserted that Mueller gathered sufficient evidence of obstruction by the president who sought to limit and derail the investigation.
“The attorney general’s actions are contemptuous,” Jackson Lee said. “I happen to believe 700 former prosecutors.”
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., said the panel’s contempt action was warranted by Barr’s defiance of the committee’s subpoena.
“Somebody said we were afraid,” Cohen said. “Yes, we’re afraid. We’re afraid of the loss of the rule of law.”
Republicans argued that the Justice Department made a reasonable offer to provide increased access to the Mueller report. Collins said that option was rejected because the committee’s leaders chose to move at “lightning speed” in pursuit of a contempt vote against the attorney general.
“Our democracy deserves better,” Collins said.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said the Democrats’ demand for the unredacted report effectively would require the attorney general to “break the law” by releasing protected grand jury information elicited by Mueller’s investigators.
“There is a character assassination squad running around this town,” Sensenbrenner said.
Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, said the panel’s leadership was seeking to “destroy” the attorney general.
“Our Democrats are really ticked off by the conclusions of the Mueller report because it found that the allegations of collusion were a big fat zero,” Chabot said.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, launched a rapid-fire repudiation of the Democratic leadership and criticism of the FBI’s handling of the Russia investigation.
“Bill Barr was following the law. What’s his reward? They are holding him in contempt,” Jordan said.
Impeachment mentioned in debate
Lawmakers from both parties said the contempt proceeding and the pursuit of more information about the Mueller report could lead to impeaching Trump, even though Pelosi and Nadler have downplayed that option.
Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., said Barr’s refusal to turn over the full report is part of “a cover-up.”
“We must get this document,” he said, to decide whether to pursue impeachment. “The American people expect us to get it.”
Gaetz said Wednesday’s debate had “nothing to do with Bill Barr.”
“This is all about impeaching the president,” Gaetz said.
Constitutional fight brewed for weeks
The Judiciary Committee fight has been brewing for weeks, since Mueller submitted his 448-page report to Barr on March 22.
Barr defended his handling of the report during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week. He initially released a four-page summary of Mueller’s conclusions, finding no conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russians seeking to influence the 2016 election.
Mueller found 10 episodes of potential obstruction of justice but reached no decision on whether to charge Trump. Barr consulted with other Justice Department lawyers before deciding no obstruction charges were warranted.
Barr released a redacted version of Mueller’s report April 18. He withheld from the report grand jury evidence, information that could affect pending cases, intelligence secrets and information that could affect the privacy of people not charged.
House Democratic leaders, including Pelosi, insisted on seeing the entire report. The House panel subpoenaed the full report April 19, and Nadler set a deadline of Monday.
Barr said he provided as much transparency as possible about the report. Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd sent the committee a five-page letter May 1 explaining the reasons for not releasing the entire report.