WASHINGTON — The House Judiciary Committee voted to approve placing Attorney General Bill Barr in contempt of Congress Wednesday for resisting a subpoena to turn over the full, unredacted Mueller report and underlying materials.
If the move is backed up by a vote in the full House, it will make Barr the second sitting AG in history to be placed in contempt of Congress.
Wednesday’s vote marked the latest attempt from Democrats to wrest information from a defiant White House and DOJ that has announced it will fight all Congressional subpoenas. Indeed, even as the committee deliberated, the White House responded by declaring executive privilege over all of the materials sought by Democrats, all but guaranteeing an escalating legal dispute between the White House and Congress.
“This kind of obstruction is dangerous,” said committee chairman Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat from New York.
Wednesday's preliminary vote to slap Barr with contempt not only escalates tensions, it also sets the stage for a formal attempt by the House to have Barr charged with a crime that’s punishable by up to a year in prison.
But any criminal contempt citation would be primarily a symbolic expression of outrage by Democrats, who have accused Barr of spinning Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s findings and lying to Congress. That citation would land with the Department of Justice, which has a track record of ignoring such requests against administration officials in the past, including under both former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
Nadler blasted the use of executive privilege — which is a legal mechanism that can be invoked to hold presidential communications secret — as lacking “legal or factual basis” with regard to the Mueller investigation.
“This is, of course, not how executive privilege works,” Nadler said. “The White House waived these privileges long ago.”
Barr has faced heat from the moment he opted not to turn over the full report and underlying documents after Mueller wrapped up his two-year investigation in March.
Rep. Doug Collins, the top-ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, criticized Nadler for plowing ahead with the contempt citation, calling the move “cynical” and “mean-spirited,” and arguing that grand jury materials contained in the report must remain secret by law.
“I can’t imagine a more illogical hill for a legislator to die on,” Collins said.
Barr had previously suggested making a less-redacted version of the Mueller report accessible to 12 select members of Congress and one additional staffer per member, as long as they all promised not to tell anyone what’s in there. On Tuesday, the DOJ suggested allowing members to bring additional staffers, and letting them keep notes.
Democrats rebuffed that offer as not good enough.
A Congressional source familiar with the negotiations told VICE News that Democrats have demanded that:
—All members of the judiciary and intelligence committees get access to the “less redacted” version of the Mueller report
—Each side should get to bring three staffers (instead of two, as proposed by DOJ)
—The DOJ commit to either help, or at least not oppose, a request for a court unseal grand jury material
—DOJ officials meet to discuss access to the underlying materials this week
Now that the committee has voted on holding Barr in contempt, the next step will be a vote in the full House, which will likely come later this month.
But even if that passes, the House will then need to decide how to try to actually enforce the contempt citation, according to Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat who spoke with VICE News about the measure on Monday.
Since a criminal citation would likely get ignored by the Department of Justice, a “more attractive” option would be to file a civil suit and ask a judge to enforce the citation, Raskin said.
In the past, however, such attempts have dragged on for years, outlasting the administration against which they were filed. But Raskin said Congress is examining its legal options, and gearing up for a fight.
“We’ll do whatever we need to do to ensure that Attorney General Barr complies with the law,” Raskin said. “We’re just getting started with exercising our real oversight and investigative power.”
Cover: United States Attorney General William Barr appears before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies on April 9, 2019 to discuss the Department of Justice's budget request for fiscal year 2020. He also discussed his plans to release Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report on the investigation into US President Donald J. Trump. (Stefani Reynolds / CNP AP)