Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee voted on May 8 to recommend the full House of Representatives to vote to find Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress.
In the resolution recommending the contempt vote, the Democrats accuse Barr of failing to comply with a subpoena for the full, non-redacted report by special counsel Robert Mueller. Republicans say the subpoena forces Barr into a legal Catch-22, since the attorney general would break federal law by disclosing grand jury material.
In the hours leading up to the vote, the White House moved to assert executive privilege over the full special counsel report. A president can assert executive privilege to withhold information concerning internal executive branch deliberations. The Justice Department is part of the executive branch.
With the resolution adopted in a 24–16 vote, the full House can hold a vote to find Barr in contempt. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress, told The Washington Post that Barr should be held in contempt.
“Faced with Chairman Nadler’s blatant abuse of power, and at the Attorney General’s request, the President has no other option than to make a protective assertion of executive privilege,” said White House press secretary Sarah Sanders.
Barr released the 448-page Mueller report with redactions in April. The special counsel concluded that there is no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Mueller also decided not to bring obstruction charges against the president. Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein found that Mueller’s report provided insufficient evidence to bring an obstruction case.
In response to Democrat’s demands to see beneath the redactions in the report, Barr offered lawmakers to view a minimally redacted version of the document. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) argued that the rules for viewing the document were too strict.
The Justice Department warned Nadler that if he moved to a contempt vote, the department would ask the White House to assert executive privilege. The department did so as the committee hearing opened.
“This decision represents a clear escalation in the Trump administration’s blanket defiance of Congress’s constitutionally mandated duties,” Nadler said.
Republicans accuse Democrats of attempting to discredit Barr because the attorney general is reviewing the origins of the Trump–Russia investigation and looking into allegations that the Obama administration spied on Trump’s campaign. They also say the Democrats are using the contempt proceedings to score points for the 2020 election by distracting from the Trump administration’s successes on the economic front.
“I think it’s about trying to destroy Bill Barr because Democrats are nervous he’s going to get to the bottom of everything,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).
In testimony before Congress, Barr has said that there was a failure of leadership at the FBI during the Trump–Russia investigation. The attorney general also said that the Trump campaign was spied on and that there was a basis for his concern. He suggested that the FBI may have conducted surveillance that was both unauthorized and politically motivated.
In addition to defying the subpoena, Barr declined to testify before the Judiciary Committee after the Democrats refused to back down from a demand that staff attorneys be allowed to question the attorney general. Barr testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 1 and volunteered to appear before the House Judiciary Committee before Democrats raised the additional demands.
When the House was controlled by Republicans, it voted in 2012 to hold Eric Holder, attorney general under Democratic President Barack Obama, in contempt for failing to turn over subpoenaed Justice Department documents about a gun-running investigation called Operation Fast and Furious. It was the first time that Congress had held the top U.S. law enforcement official or any Cabinet member in contempt.
Compared to the pace of the proceedings in the Holder case, Democrats are moving to contempt proceedings at “lightning speed,” according to House Judiciary Committee ranking member Doug Collins (R-Ga.) In Holder’s case, the committee moved to contempt proceedings 450 days after requesting information from Holder. The Democrats waited 43 days before starting the process for a contempt recommendation.
According to Jordan, Mueller is expected to appear before the committee on May 15. Democratic sources in Congress said that the special counsel tentatively agreed to testify on May 15. Trump has said Mueller should not testify. Barr has said he isn’t against the special counsel appearing before Congress.