Washington, DC – Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee voted on Wednesday to recommend a contempt citation against US Attorney General William Barr, setting the stage for a constitutional confrontation with the White House over Special Counsel Robert Mueller‘s full Russia report.
The 24-16 vote by the key Judiciary Committee came along party lines with all Democrats voting in favour, and all Republicans present opposed. One Republican was absent.
“This was very great and momentous step that we were forced to take today to move a contempt citation against the attorney general of the United States. We did not relish doing this but we have no choice,” Representative Jerrold Nadler, the Democrat chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told reporters after the vote.
Barr had “proved himself to be the personal attorney of President Trump rather than the attorney general of the United States, by misleading the public as to the contents of the Mueller report, twice, by not being truthful with Congress”, Nadler said.
The approval of the contempt resolution, which now goes to the full House for a vote, will likely prompt a court battle that may result in fines or jail time for Barr.
The vote came after weeks of talks between the lawyers for the committee and the attorney general failed to yield an agreement over access to Mueller’s full, unredacted report.
“Democrats are angry Mueller did not provide a roadmap for impeachment,” said Representative Doug Collins, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee.
By “moving to this contempt citation at lightning speed”, the committee Democrats were pursuing “craven and insincere politics that seem to be yielding no benefits for the American people,” Collins said.
Trump invokes executive privilege
Hours before the vote, Republican President Donald Trump invoked executive privilege to block the release of the unredacted version of the Mueller report.
Federal courts have recognised a limited right by presidents to keep executive branch materials confidential.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said the privilege claim was in response to Nadler’s “blatant abuse of power” and “at the attorney general’s request”.
House Democrats argued that Trump has already waived any right to executive privilege by allowing aides to provide information to the special counsel.
The Department of Justice said on Wednesday that “it’s not true the president waived executive privilege by sharing materials with the special counsel’s office”, according to Reuters news agency, quoting an unnamed department official.
The department also accused Democrats of engaging in “inappropriate political theatrics”.
Nadler called Trump’s executive privilege decision a “nonsense claim”.
“We will win these court fights because the law is one sided. And when the president or Attorney General Barr or anybody else cites executive privilege in these cases, they are not being honest, because there is no real claim at all,” he said.
Wednesday’s developments come as a battle between House Democrats and the Trump administration intensifies. Trump has sought to block aides and former staffers from cooperating with a number of congressional investigations looking into the president’s behaviour and finances.
‘If we don’t put the breaks, we won’t have a democracy’
The Judiciary Committee is seeking to have Mueller testify at a hearing later this month, perhaps as soon as May 15, and has asked former White House Counsel Don McGahn to appear on May 21.
White House lawyers are attempting to block McGahn from testifying. Reversing his earlier stance, Trump indicated in a series of tweets he is now opposed to Mueller testifying.
“The president keeps saying there is not going to be a ‘do over’. And he has talked about a number of people have said we should just be finished. That is the worst thing we could do,” Representative Elijah Cummings, the Democrat chairman of the House Oversight Committee, told Al Jazeera.
“If we do not put brakes on what is happening in our country, we will no longer have a democracy,” Cummings said. “We are being blocked every which way from getting information. We also being blocked from having access to members of the administration.”
Representative David Cicilline, a Democrat, told reporters in the US Capitol that sentiment among Democrats was hardening against Trump’s refusal to cooperate with the House review of the Mueller probe.
“Everyone recognises that the administration is attempting to stonewall and prevent progress because they want to run out the clock. We recognize that,” Cicilline said.
Republicans discounted the Judiciary Committee vote to hold Barr in contempt as a partisan exercise.
“It’s a political contempt vote and we fully expected it,” said Representative Mark Meadows, a Republican who chairs the conservative Freedom Caucus in the House in advance of the vote.
“When you play politics with somebody who has been as honest and forthright as Attorney General Barr has been, I think the American people will see it for what it is. It’s political,” Meadows told Al Jazeera.
‘In favour of prosecution’
Barr has come under criticism for his handling of Mueller’s 22-month investigation. More than 500 former Justice Department officials have signed an open letter calling Trump’s actions described in the Mueller report criminal.
“We believe strongly that … the overwhelming weight of professional judgment would come down in favour of prosecution for the conduct outlined in the Mueller report,” the letter said.
The redacted version of the Mueller report did not establish that the Trump campaign conspired with Russian operatives.
The investigation did, however, examine “multiple acts by the president that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations”.
Mueller did not conclude that Trump committed obstruction of justice, but did not exonerate him either. Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein subsequently concluded that Trump did not break the law.
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 it.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has criticised Barr for mischaracterising the Mueller report said last week she believed Barr lied to Congress when he told House and Senate hearings he did not know of any concerns among Mueller’s team about his actions.
Mueller had written a letter to Barr in March that said the attorney general’s summary of the investigation had failed to adequately characterise the substance of the investigation.
|US Attorney General William Barr testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on ‘The Justice Department’s Investigation of Russian Interference with the 2016 Presidential Election’ [Nicholas Kamm/AFP]
Barr was grilled by Democrat senators in a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 1.
Meanwhile, Senate Republicans are seeking to bring an end to the controversy over the Mueller report. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham has said he does not intend to call Mueller to testify. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell gave a speech in the Senate on Tuesday arguing the matter should be closed.