The House Judiciary Committee voted along party lines Wednesday to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress, escalating a growing feud between Democrats and the Trump administration over special counsel Robert Mueller's report.
In a 24-16 vote, Democrats made a formal recommendation that the House hold Barr in contempt for failing to comply with a congressional subpoena for Mueller's full unredacted report and underlying documents.
House leaders have expressed support for the contempt resolution, though it's unclear when it will advance to the House floor. Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said during a press conference after the vote that it would happen “rapidly” and “soon,” though he said he is not sure of a specific time.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) backed the contempt resolution during a Washington Post event earlier Wednesday, and said impeaching Barr is “not off the table.”
She also criticized the administration for actions that she has argued are meant to provoke Democrats into launching impeachment proceedings against the president.
"Every single day the president is making a case — he's becoming self-impeachable, in terms of some of the things he's doing," she said.
Democrats were angered on the eve of the contempt vote after Barr threatened to recommend that President Trump exert executive privilege over the redacted information in Mueller’s report as well as the underlying evidence. The Justice Department followed through with the threat just before the markup began.
“As we have repeatedly explained, the attorney general could not comply with your subpoena in its current form without violating the law, court rules and court orders, and without threatening the independence of the Department of Justice’s prosecutorial functions,” Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd wrote in a letter to Nadler.
“Accordingly, this is to advise you that the president has asserted executive privilege over the entirety of the subpoenaed materials.”
In his opening remarks, Nadler accused the Trump administration of “unprecedented obstruction.” He also argued the White House had waived executive privilege “long ago” in the course of Mueller's inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
“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.”
Democrats have rejected an offer from Barr to let a select group of lawmakers view a less-redacted version of the report in a secure room, provided they do not discuss its contents.
Barr has also declined to join the committee in asking a court to release grand jury material from the report, which is subject to secrecy rules barring a ruling from a judge under specific exceptions.
Wednesday’s vote is sure to exacerbate tensions that are already sky-high.
The Justice Department accused Nadler of “inappropriate political theatrics” following the vote, saying Barr had gone to great lengths to provide Congress and the public with information about the investigation within the constraints of the law. Justice Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec said Nadler’s rush to a contempt vote had “forced” Trump to assert executive privilege over the report “to preserve the status quo.”
“Unfortunately, rather than allowing negotiations to continue, Chairman Nadler short-circuited these efforts by proceeding with a politically motivated and unnecessary contempt vote, which he refused to postpone to allow additional time to explore discussion and compromise,” Kupec said.
Republicans vociferously defended Barr at the markup, accusing Democrats of character assassination.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) asserted that Democrats are using Barr as a “whipping boy,” while others criticized Nadler for rushing to hold the attorney general in contempt before hearing testimony from Mueller or viewing the less-redacted version of the report.
“Democrats have resolved to neutralize Bill Barr by attacking his integrity and distinguished career,” Rep. Doug Collins (Ga.), the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said during his opening remarks. “This is the first step. What a cynical, mean-spirited, counterproductive and irresponsible step it is.”
Collins noted Republicans waited longer between issuing a subpoena and voting on contempt when the GOP-controlled House Oversight and Reform Committee sought to punish then-Attorney General Eric Holder in 2012 over the Justice Department’s botched handling of the “Fast and Furious” gun-tracking operation.
Democrats accuse Barr of misrepresenting Mueller’s findings in a four-page memo released in March, roughly three weeks before he released the redacted version of Mueller’s 448-page report.
The Justice Department and lawyers from the special counsel’s office redacted the report to conceal grand jury material, details on ongoing investigations, classified national security information and details that infringe on the privacy of third parties swept up in the probe. The redactions make up roughly 10 percent of the document.
Mueller did not find evidence to charge members of the Trump campaign with conspiracy with Russia and did not reach a conclusion on whether the president obstructed the probe. Barr and Attorney General Rod Rosenstein judged the evidence to be insufficient to accuse Trump of criminal wrongdoing.
Barr faced questions about his handling of the report at a Senate hearing last week after a March 27 letter surfaced showing that Mueller thought Barr's memo did “not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of the investigation’s conclusions. Barr was slated to appear before the House Judiciary Committee for testimony on the Mueller investigation last Thursday, but he declined to appear after the committee demanded that staff question him.
Republicans also argued Barr is acting lawfully by refusing to hand over an unredacted version of the report that contains grand jury material — echoing arguments of the White House and Justice Department — and that complying with Nadler’s subpoena would amount to him breaking the law.
Nadler said Wednesday that he was not asking Barr to break the law by releasing grand jury material, but instead requesting that the attorney general join the committee in petitioning for its release or commit to not blocking their efforts to do so.
During the six-and-a-half-hour meeting, the panel adopted an amendment to the resolution offered by Gaetz stating that nothing in the resolution should be construed as “a directive for the Attorney General to violate Federal law or rules, including but not limited to Rule 6 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.”
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