Justice Dept. Agrees to Turn Over Key Mueller Evidence to House
Democrats have been in a standoff with the Trump administration over documents and witnesses they say they need to bring Robert S. Mueller III’s report alive for voters. CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times
- June 10, 2019
WASHINGTON — The Justice Department, after weeks of tense negotiations, has agreed to provide Congress with key evidence collected by Robert S. Mueller III that Democrats believe could shed light on possible obstruction of justice and abuse of power by President Trump.
The precise scope, volume or usefulness of the material was not immediately clear, but the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, said it would include “interview notes, firsthand accounts of misconduct and other critical evidence” collected by Mr. Mueller from the White House and former officials.
The deal appeared to provide a rationale for House Democrats’ choice, announced last week, to back away from threats to hold Attorney General William P. Barr in contempt of Congress for defying a subpoena for the materials in question. Out of an abundance of caution, the House still planned move forward with a Tuesday vote to empower the Judiciary Committee to take Mr. Barr and other noncompliant witnesses to court to fully enforce their subpoenas if necessary.
And another panel, the House Oversight and Reform Committee, is to vote on Wednesday to recommend that the House hold Mr. Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt for defying subpoenas in a different case related to the Trump administration’s addition of a citizenship question on the 2020 census.
Nonetheless, the Judiciary Committee’s deal with the Justice Department, at least for now, appeared to pull House Democrats and the Trump administration away from their collision course over the Mueller report.
“We have agreed to allow the department time to demonstrate compliance with this agreement,” Mr. Nadler said in a statement. “If the department proceeds in good faith and we are able to obtain everything that we need, then there will be no need to take further steps. If important information is held back, then we will have no choice but to enforce our subpoena in court and consider other remedies.”
Democrats have vowed to hold Mr. Trump accountable for the misdeeds uncovered by Mr. Mueller, but they have been stuck in neutral for weeks amid a standoff with the Trump administration over documents and witnesses that they say they need to bring Mr. Mueller’s 448-page report alive for American voters.
Hours after Mr. Nadler unveiled the deal, he gaveled in the first of a series of hearings scrutinizing, in painstaking detail, 10 incidents of possible obstruction of justice identified by Mr. Mueller. Only instead of hearing from Donald F. McGahn II, Mr. Trump’s former White House counsel and a key witness for Mr. Mueller, the witness stand was occupied by John W. Dean, who made his name in an entirely different scandal, Watergate, working for another president, Richard M. Nixon. He was joined not by Mr. Mueller but two former federal prosecutors known as contributors on MSNBC, as well as an outside conservative legal expert.
Mr. Dean played his part, comparing Mr. Trump to Nixon and seemingly encouraging the House to impeach. “The Mueller report is to Trump as the Watergate road map was to Nixon,” he said. “Special Counsel Mueller gave Congress a road map.”
But far from the kind of must-see television Democrats believe they need to get the public behind them, live coverage of Monday’s hearing was pre-empted on cable networks by a helicopter crash in Manhattan. Republicans, who cheered signs of a thaw with the Justice Department, openly mocked the proceedings.
“You are wonderful on TV, but I could catch your testimony on TV,” Representative Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the committee, told the Democrats’ witnesses when they arrived. In a dig at Mr. Dean, who last testified before the Judiciary Committee in 1974 as it mulled impeaching Nixon, he added, “This committee is now hearing from the ’70s, and they want their star witness back.”
Even so, the president appeared to be fixated. He targeted Mr. Dean on Twitter and told reporters at the White House, “John Dean’s been a loser for many years.”
“You can’t impeach somebody when there’s never been a thing done wrong,” he added. “When you look at past impeachments” there is “a big difference.”
Democrats tried to project confidence on Monday. The resolution that will be under consideration on the House floor on Tuesday will empower the Judiciary Committee not only to pursue Mr. Barr but also to go to court to try to enforce its subpoena for documents and testimony from Mr. McGahn.
The Justice Department began sharing some of the promised material on Monday afternoon. Mr. Nadler said all members of the committee would be able to view it privately, but it was not exactly clear what would be made available or when it might become public.
The Judiciary Committee initially requested — and then subpoenaed — the full text of Mr. Mueller’s report without redactions weeks ago, as well as all of the evidence underlying it. Mr. Barr refused and after negotiations broke down, Mr. Trump asserted executive privilege over the material, prompting the committee’s contempt recommendation.
But in recent weeks, the Justice Department appeared amenable to a compromise that would give the committee access to F.B.I. interview summaries with key witnesses, contemporaneous notes taken by White House aides, and certain memos and messages cited in the report.
The agreement appears to have been foreshadowed in an exchange of letters in recent weeks between the committee and the department. In a May 24 letter outlining a proposed compromise, Mr. Nadler wrote that he was “prepared to prioritize production of materials that would provide the committee with the most insight into certain incidents when the special counsel found ‘substantial evidence’ of obstruction of justice.”
Those episodes include Mr. Trump’s attempts to fire Mr. Mueller; his request that Mr. McGahn create “a fraudulent record denying that incident”; and Mr. Trump’s efforts to get former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to undo his recusal and curtail the scope of the special counsel inquiry.
After weeks of objections, the Justice Department said it found the proposal reasonable and would work with the committee to share the materials in question, but only if the House would back off on holding Mr. Barr in contempt of Congress.
“We are pleased the committee has agreed to set aside its contempt resolution and is returning to the traditional accommodation process,” said Kerri Kupec, a Justice Department spokeswoman. “The Department of Justice remains committed to appropriately accommodating Congress’s legitimate interests related to the special counsel’s investigation and will continue to do so provided the previously voted-upon resolution does not advance.”
The more limited request outlined in recent weeks includes the F.B.I. summaries with Mr. McGahn, who served as a kind of narrator for Mr. Mueller as he assembled an obstruction case. Mr. Mueller ultimately concluded that Justice Department policy prevented him from contemplating charges against Mr. Trump and instead left action to Congress.
Democrats asked for summaries from interviews with Annie Donaldson, Mr. McGahn’s chief of staff; Hope Hicks, the former White House communications director; Reince Priebus and John F. Kelly, former White House chiefs of staff; Michael D. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s onetime fixer and personal lawyer; and Mr. Sessions, among others.
Democrats had also requested detailed notes taken by Ms. Donaldson about White House meetings and Mr. McGahn’s interactions with the president, as well as notes taken by Joseph H. Hunt, Mr. Sessions’s chief of staff when he was attorney general. Other documents in the narrowed request included a draft letter justifying the firing of James B. Comey as F.B.I. director, a White House counsel memo on the firing of Michael T. Flynn as national security adviser and other documents created by the White House.
Democrats referenced some of that evidence at Monday’s hearing as they marched through Mr. Mueller’s report.
“Professor McQuade, what purpose or function does note-taking serve for lawyers?” asked Representative Karen Bass, Democrat of California, referring to one of the witnesses, Barbara McQuade, a former United States attorney in Michigan.
Representative Ted Lieu, another California Democrat, said, “Let’s talk about Jeff Sessions’s recusal.”
Mostly, Democrats got what they were looking for.
“The obstruction described in the report created a risk to our national security,” Ms. McQuade said. “It was designed to prevent investigators from learning all the facts about an attack on our country.”
Republicans turned to their witness, John Malcolm of the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“While it is certainly true that no man, including the president of the United States, is above the law, it is equally true that the president occupies a unique position in our constitutional structure and that some laws apply differently to him and some don’t apply at all,” he said.
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