In rare move, House panel votes to hold AG Barr in contempt over Mueller report
Attorney General William Barr made good Thursday on his threat to skip a House hearing into Russian interference in the 2016 election USA TODAY
WASHINGTON – 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.”
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.
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