World / Crime & Legal

U.S. House Democrats set contempt vote for William Barr over Russia probe report

AP

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler has scheduled a Wednesday vote to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress, escalating the battle between the Democrat-led House and President Donald Trump over special counsel Robert Mueller’s report .

Nadler is proposing to hold Barr in contempt after the Justice Department declined to provide the committee with a full, unredacted version of special counsel Mueller’s report on Trump and Russia. The committee had given Barr until 9 a.m. Monday to comply.

“Congress must see the full report and underlying evidence to determine how to best move forward with oversight, legislation, and other constitutional responsibilities,” Nadler said in a statement Monday morning.

The department has released to the public a redacted version, which Nadler said offered “disturbing evidence and analysis that President Trump engaged in obstruction of justice at the highest levels.” He said Barr’s failure to comply with the subpoena for the full report “leaves us no choice but to initiate contempt proceedings.”

Republicans have sharply criticized Democrats as they have battled Trump’s administration over the Mueller report, subpoenaed multiple administration witnesses and made efforts to gain access to Trump’s personal and business financial records. Trump has said he will fight “all the subpoenas.”

The top Republican on Judiciary committee, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, said “Democrats have launched a proxy war smearing the attorney general” when their anger actually lies with the president. He said the upcoming vote is “illogical and disingenuous” as negotiations are underway with the Justice Department for access.

Proceedings could be postponed if the attorney general makes a “good faith” effort to comply with the committee, Nadler said. But that appears unlikely.

While a contempt vote would send a message, it wouldn’t force the Justice Department to hand over the report. Nor would it guarantee criminal charges against Barr. The full House would need to approve it, which would send a criminal referral to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, a Justice Department official who is likely to defend the attorney general.

Still, Democratic House leaders have signaled they will methodically take advantage of all the legal steps available. They could also file a civil lawsuit against the Justice Department — an option that could take months or even years to resolve. Some members of the committee have suggested they also could fine Barr as he withholds the information. They could also open impeachment proceedings against Trump, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she’s not interested in doing that, for now.

In a letter to Barr on Friday, Nadler said the committee “will move to contempt proceedings and seek further legal recourse” if the Justice Department did not comply with the panel’s demands for the report.

There is some recent precedent for sitting attorneys general to be held in contempt of Congress. It happened in 2012 to then-Attorney General Eric Holder, who was held in contempt by the Republican-led House over a botched gun-tracking operation known as Fast and Furious. Republicans cited the Justice Department’s failure to turn over, without any preconditions, documents related to the risky operation. More than 100 Democrats boycotted the vote, and Holder described it as a politically motivated act in an election year.

As expected, the Justice Department took no action to prosecute the attorney general.

Democrats say they need to see Mueller’s full report, including underlying materials like interview transcripts, to conduct a complete review of Mueller’s probe. In terms of the underlying materials, Nadler said the committee wants to see witness interviews and “items such as contemporaneous notes” that are directly cited in the report. He also asked that all members of Congress be allowed to review an unredacted version.

The Justice Department has made a less redacted version available for House and Senate leaders and some committee heads, but the Democrats have said that is not enough and have so far declined to read that version.

In a 27-page document released Monday, the House Judiciary panel says that Congress is “the only body able to hold the president to account” since the Justice Department has a policy against indicting a sitting president.

“Otherwise, the president remains insulated from legal consequences and sits above the law,” the committee wrote.

Mueller said that his probe established no criminal conspiracy between the Trump team and Russia, but did not reach a conclusion on obstruction. Mueller didn’t charge Trump with obstruction but wrote that he couldn’t exonerate him, either.

Barr skipped a scheduled hearing with the Judiciary panel last week amid a dispute over how he would be questioned. Hours later, Pelosi said she believed the attorney general had lied about his communications with Mueller in testimony last month, and that was a “crime.” Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec called Pelosi’s accusation “reckless, irresponsible and false.”

As the fight with Barr has escalated, Democrats have been in negotiations to hear from Mueller himself. Trump complicated those negotiations Sunday when he tweeted that he would oppose Mueller’s testimony.

“Bob Mueller should not testify,” he tweeted. Trump had previously said he would leave the question to Barr, who has said he has no objection to Mueller testifying.

As long as Mueller remains a Justice Department employee, Trump or Barr could block him from testifying. Trump did not indicate if he would take steps to do so. It’s unclear when Mueller will leave the department — or whether he would want to testify in his own capacity when he does leave.

Nadler said last week the committee was “firming up the date” for Mueller’s testimony and hoping it would be May 15. The Justice Department declined to comment.