The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday voted to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress for failing to turn over an unredacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and President Trump’s efforts to obstruct the probe.
“This is not a step we take lightly,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said before the vote. “This is a culmination of three months of requests, discussions and negotiations with the Department of Justice.”
The final vote was 24-16, along party lines.
Earlier this week, Barr missed a deadline set by the panel to turn over the full report along with the underlying evidence. Late Tuesday, the Justice Department delivered a letter to Nadler requesting that he delay the vote. If he did not, the department warned, Trump would assert executive privilege over the entire Mueller report.
Minutes before the vote, the Justice Department issued another letter to Nadler stating that Trump invoked executive privilege over the materials.
“This decision represents a clear escalation in the Trump administration’s blanket defiance of Congress’s constitutionally mandated duties,” Nadler said. “I hope that the department will think better of this last-minute outburst and return to negotiations.”
The White House is insistent that there is nothing more to investigate about Trump’s 2016 campaign or allegations of obstruction of justice, while House Democrats say they need to see the full special counsel report and hear from Mueller himself and other administration officials, including former White House counsel Don McGahn.
In an interview with CNN earlier Wednesday, Nadler called the impasse “a constitutional crisis.”
“You cannot have a government in which the president can conceal all information about his own wrongdoing and about anything else,” Nadler said. “He wants to make himself a king and Congress cannot permit that.”
“We cannot allow Donald Trump and his minions to convert a democratic government into what amounts to a monarchy,” he added.
A person found guilty of “willfully” failing to comply with a subpoena from Congress can be punished with imprisonment for up to one year and a maximum $1,000 fine. But criminal charges would have to be brought by the Department of Justice, which Barr himself heads, or by a U.S. attorney who reports to him.
Holding an attorney general in contempt of Congress is not unprecedented. In 2012, then-Attorney General Eric Holder was found in contempt of Congress for his failure to provide documents for a congressional inquiry into “Fast and Furious,” a failed sting operation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in which weapons were sold to Mexican drug dealers.
Holder was not prosecuted by the Obama administration, which also cited executive privilege.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders blasted Nadler’s request for the unredacted Mueller report.
“The attorney general is actually upholding the law,” Sanders told reporters. “Chairman Nadler is asking the attorney general of the United States to break the law and commit a crime by releasing information that he knows he has no legal authority to have. It’s truly outrageous and absurd what the chairman is doing and he should be embarrassed by his behavior.”
Trump has falsely claimed that the special counsel fully exonerated him. The Mueller report, released last month, did not find that the Trump campaign conspired with Russia to influence the election. But it chronicled at least 10 episodes of efforts by Trump to obstruct the federal probe.
“If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state,” the report read. “We are unable to reach that judgment.”
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