Barr in Contempt After House Vote on Mueller Report

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s redacted report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election as released on Thursday, April 18, 2019, is photographed in Washington. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick)

WASHINGTON (CN) – The House Judiciary Committee voted to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt Wednesday for not providing it with the full report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller, setting up a high-profile legal showdown between the House and the Trump administration.

“This was a very grave and momentous step that we were forced to take today to move a contempt citation against the attorney general of the United States,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., told reporters after the vote. “We did not relish doing this, but we have no choice.”

Led by Nadler, the House Judiciary Committee voted along party lines to hold Barr in contempt after he bucked a congressional subpoena and missed a May 1 deadline to turn over Mueller’s full report and the evidence supporting it.

Mueller compiled the report for nearly two years, summarizing an investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and the extent to which President Donald Trump’s campaign coordinated in that effort.

Barr publicly released a redacted version of Mueller’s report last month, but House Democrats have long insisted he also give Congress access to a full version of the bombshell document. The publicly released version of the report includes redactions to protect grand jury information and intelligence sources and methods, as well as details of ongoing prosecutions and information that could harm the reputations of third parties. 

Earlier this morning, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders called the contempt vote a “desperate ploy” and announced the White House will claim executive privilege over the full report and its underlying evidence and documents.

“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,” Sanders said in a statement. 

Wednesday’s chain of events is similar to what the Obama White House did before then-Attorney General Eric Holder was held in contempt of Congress over Operation Fast and Furious — a gun-walking scandal where the government lost track of thousands of firearms that were hoped would lead investigators into the secret dens of Mexican drug cartels.

With the panel vote, the issue now goes before the full House, which will need to vote separately to hold the attorney general in contempt. If the House votes as expected, Barr would be the second attorney general held in contempt of Congress, following Holder. 

The contempt resolution will likely send the fight over the documents to court, much like when Republicans held Holder in contempt in 2012. After filing suit in 2012, it wasn’t until 2016 that a federal judge ordered the Justice Department to turn over documents House Republicans requested as part of the “Fast and Furious” probe.

Ahead of this afternoon’s contempt vote, the White House asserted executive privilege this morning over Mueller’s full report.

In a letter to Trump on Wednesday, Barr said the assertion of privilege would be “preliminary,” allowing the administration time to determine which documents it would like to make a final assertion of privilege over.

Barr urged Trump to make the move because the committee did not “grant sufficient time to conduct a final review” of the massive trove of documents.

The White House’s claim of privilege sparked hours of debate on the committee, with Democrats calling the move a threat to Congress’ authority to conduct investigations.

“I can only conclude that the president now seeks to take a wrecking ball to the Constitution of the United States of America,” Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said.  

But Republicans on the committee said Democrats were going too far in seeking the full report, saying it would reveal sensitive investigative information, including secret grand jury material, and would be highly likely to leak. 

They accused Democrats of moving to contempt out of frustration over Mueller’s inability to connect Trump with Russia’s criminal conspiracy.

“Really we’re just manufacturing a crisis because, No. 1, we didn’t get what we want, No. 2, we don’t like what we got,” Representative Doug Collins, R-Ga., said.

Representative Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., called for the contempt resolution to be amended so as to make clear it would not require Barr to turn over grand jury information. The measure received bipartisan support.

After Gaetz offered the amendment, Nadler said the subpoena to Barr was never meant to turn up grand jury information. The admission came as a surprise to Republicans considering Democrats defeated a Republican amendment to the initial subpoena authorization that clarified the subpoena would not cover grand jury information.

Nadler also said he intends for the committee to eventually ask a federal court to release the grand jury information.

Accusing committee Democrats of moving to contempt too quickly meanwhile, Collins noted that the proceedings against Holder, from committee request to the full House contempt vote, stretched more than a year.

“Again Mr. Chairman, you yourself were very critical of holding Holder in contempt, very critical of him being held in contempt,” Collins said to Nadler. “And that was a process that lasted a long time.” 

But Democrats defended the move, saying access to the full report and its evidence is necessary for the committee’s oversight work and to vindicate Congress’ investigative authority.

Representative Hank Johnson, D-Ga., even explicitly mentioned possible impeachment proceedings against Trump, saying such a move would be impossible without knowing more about the Mueller investigation.

“How can we impeach without getting the documents?” Johnson said. “So we must get this document, the American people expect us to do it. Once we get it our hearings can continue and lead to whatever they may lead to, including impeachment.”

A House panel voted to hold Clinton Attorney General Janet Reno in contempt in 1998, but the resolution was not voted on in the full House. A Senate subcommittee did the same for Reagan Attorney General William French Smith, but that resolution also did not go to the full Senate.

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