House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler has scheduled a Wednesday vote to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress after the Justice Department declined to provide an unredacted version of the Mueller report to Congress.
The vote to hold Barr in contempt marks the first time that House Democrats are moving to punish a Trump administration official for defying a congressional subpoena and represents a dramatic escalation in tensions between Democrats and the White House.
Nadler set Wednesday’s Judiciary Committee vote after Barr did not agree by Monday’s 9 a.m. ET deadline to comply with a subpoena for special counsel Robert Mueller’s full, unredacted report and underlying evidence to Congress.
The Justice Department responded to Nadler in a letter on Monday saying it was willing to keep negotiating with the committee in good faith and staff to come to the department on Wednesday “to negotiate an accommodation that meets the legitimate interests of each of our coequal branches of government.”
But Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd wrote that the Justice Department was “disappointed” the committee moved toward contempt, and urged Nadler to review the less-redacted version of the report that was made available to congressional leaders.
“The Attorney General has taken extraordinary steps to accommodate the House Judiciary Committee’s requests for information regarding the Special Counsel’s investigation,” Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement. “But to date, Chairman Nadler has not reciprocated, refusing even to read the minimally-redacted version of the Special Counsel’s report and imposing novel and unreasonable terms on the Attorney General’s offer to testify before the Committee.”
Nadler said in a statement Monday evening that Justice Department officials had agreed to meet with Judiciary Committee staff on Tuesday ahead of the scheduled contempt vote.
“It remains vital that the Committee obtain access to the full, unredacted report and the underlying materials,” Nadler said. “At the moment, our plans to consider holding Attorney General Barr accountable for his failure to comply with our subpoena still stand. My hope is that we make concrete progress at tomorrow’s meeting towards resolving this dispute. The Committee remains committed to finding a reasonable accommodation.”
The Justice Department last week said in a letter that the subpoena was “not legitimate oversight” and an “overbroad and extraordinarily burdensome” request. The heart of the dispute is over the grand jury material in the Mueller report, which Nadler has said Congress is entitled to but Barr argues he’s not legally allowed to provide without a court order.
Nadler on Friday sent Barr a new offer to narrow and prioritize the scope of the evidence that the Justice Department would turn over, but he did not back away from his demand that Barr join him in seeking a court order to provide the grand jury material — something Barr has signaled no interest in doing.
If the Judiciary Committee votes Wednesday to hold Barr in contempt, the matter would then be taken up by the full House.
Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said Nadler’s decision to vote to hold Barr in contempt was “illogical and disingenuous.”
“They know the Justice Department is working to negotiate even as they pursue contempt charges, making their move today illogical and disingenuous,” Collins said in a statement. “Democrats have launched a proxy war smearing the attorney general when their anger actually lies with the president and the special counsel, who found neither conspiracy nor obstruction.”
The contempt citation is unlikely to have much practical effect — House Republicans held then-Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt during the Obama administration, too — but it ratchets up the stakes for House Democrats and the Justice Department at a sensitive time.
Mueller testimony looms
Barr’s own testimony became a flashpoint for the Judiciary Committee last week after he skipped a scheduled hearing amid a dispute about the format. Barr objected to the committee’s insistence that staff attorneys be allowed to interview him.
Wednesday’s contempt vote is not tied to his testimony, as Nadler has not yet issued a subpoena for Barr to appear.
In addition, Nadler is seeking to have Mueller testify before the committee on May 15, though the date is not finalized. Barr testified to the Senate last week that he had no objections to Mueller testifying, but on Sunday President Donald Trump reversed his previous position and tweeted that Mueller should not testify.
On the other side of the Capitol, Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham told CNN Monday that he was open to public testimony from Mueller, too, — but only about his March phone call Barr.
Graham has resisted Democratic requests to have Mueller testify on the instigation, but he wrote a letter to Mueller last week that said Mueller could provide “testimony” if he wanted to clarify anything about what Barr testified about their phone call. Barr told Graham’s committee that Mueller clarified in the call his written objections to Barr’s four-page letter, saying that Mueller told him he was concerned with media coverage.
Graham said Monday he has not heard back after his letter, but that he is open to testimony any way Mueller wants to provide it. But he added the caveat that public testimony would only cover “any dispute” about the phone call.
Fights between Democrats and White House for documents
The text of Nadler’s contempt vote resolution includes a step-by-step accounting of the actions the committee has taken to try to obtain the full report, as well as their argument for why obtaining the report serves a legitimate legislative purpose.
“With the 2020 elections approaching, the Committee requires the most complete possible understanding of Russia’s influence and hacking operations,” the resolution says. “Without this information, the Committee is unable to fully perform its responsibility to protect the impending 2020 elections — and thus our democracy itself — from a recurrence of Russian interference.”
The attorney general may become the first Trump administration official held in contempt of Congress this year, but it’s just one of numerous fights playing out between House Democrats and the Trump administration.
House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings has slammed the White House for stonewalling his requests for documents and testimony in multiple investigations, and he has threatened to hold one former White House official in contempt as part of his security clearance investigation.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin is expected to reject a request from House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal for the President’s personal and business tax returns as early as Monday, CNN has reported, setting up a potential court battle.
And Trump and the Trump Organization have filed lawsuits to block subpoenas issued to banks and accounting firms by Cummings, House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff and House Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters.
Democrats are still debating how they should respond to stonewalling of their investigations from the Trump administration. Some Democrats have urged the use of Congress’ so-called inherent contempt powers, which would include the prospect of jailing or fining those who don’t comply with congressional subpoenas. But inherent contempt hasn’t been used in nearly a century, and it’s not clear whether it would be enforceable.