Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Trump claims executive privilege over Mueller report

The White House on Wednesday asserted executive privilege over special counsel Robert Mueller’s full report on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, ramping up its clash with Congress over its investigations into President Trump.

The move came just before the House Judiciary Committee was scheduled to vote to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress for failing to turn over Mueller’s unredacted report and underlying materials, which the panel had subpoenaed.

Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd wrote in a letter to the committee's chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), that the administration was following through on its threat to assert privilege if the panel refused to delay the contempt vote, saying lawmakers effectively “terminated” negotiations over access to Mueller’s report and underlying evidence.

“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,” Boyd wrote. “Accordingly, this is to advise you that the president has asserted executive privilege over the entirety of the subpoenaed materials.”

Wednesday marks the first time Trump has used executive privilege to stymie House Democrats’ probes into his administration, campaign and businesses. The move is sure to anger Democrats and could trigger a legal challenge that may take months to resolve.

“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.”

The White House maintained that Trump had “no other option” than to exert executive privilege.

“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,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement.

Trump’s efforts to stonewall congressional investigators have provoked top Democrats, to the delight of campaign advisers who believe the probes could backfire and boost the president’s chances of reelection in 2020.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has voiced opposition to impeachment proceedings, but said Trump is practically inviting them by continuing to block Democrats’ requests for witnesses and documents.

“Every single day the president is making a case — he's becoming self-impeachable, in terms of some of the things he's doing,” Pelosi said during an event sponsored by The Washington Post.

The administration this week has turned down Democrats’ request to hand over Trump’s tax returns and instructed former White House counsel Don McGahn not to give documents to the Judiciary panel. Trump over the weekend said Mueller should not testify to Congress.

The privilege claim came just as Nadler gaveled in a committee meeting on the contempt vote against Barr. The New York Democrat has argued the panel is entitled to view the full, unredacted Mueller report as part of its oversight and investigative authorities.

At the time of the announcement, lawmakers had not yet voted on whether to hold Barr in contempt after he did not comply with the subpoena.

Nadler accused the Trump administration of “unprecedented obstruction” in his opening remarks and argued that Trump had already waived executive privilege “long ago” in the course of the Mueller investigation.

Trump allowed Mueller to interview aides and did not assert privilege over the contents of the 448-page public report, which was released in a redacted form by Barr on April 18. The report did not establish that Trump engaged in a conspiracy with Russia during the 2016 election.

Mueller also investigated 10 instances of possible obstruction of justice by Trump, but Barr decided not to press charges after the special counsel failed to reach a decision on that question.

The committee soon afterwards issued a subpoena for Mueller’s full report and investigative files as lawmakers determine whether to open an impeachment inquiry into the president.

“As a co-equal branch of government, we must have access to the materials that we need to fulfill our constitutional responsibilities in a manner consistent with past precedent,” Nadler said Wednesday. “The administration has announced — loud and clear — that it does not recognize Congress as a co-equal branch with independent constitutional oversight authority and it will continue to wage its campaign of obstruction.”

The Justice Department’s letter said it decided to invoke privilege over all the subpoenaed materials as a “protective” measure so that Trump can make a final decision after a “full review.” Boyd said the move was necessary because of the speed with which Democrats decided to move ahead with the committee's “premature” contempt vote.

Barr has allowed a select group of lawmakers to review a less-redacted version of the report in a secure area, provided they don’t discuss its contents, but has refused to give the committee his blessing to petition a court for the release of grand jury material.

Democrats have described his offer as unacceptable, demanding more members have access to the full special counsel’s report and the evidence Mueller collected in his 22-month investigation.

Committee staff met with Justice Department officials on Tuesday afternoon, but failed to resolve an impasse. The Justice Department offered to let more staffers view the report and for members who view it to discuss it amongst themselves and take their notes on it from the secure room.

The Justice Department threatened in a letter late Wednesday that the attorney general would recommend that Trump assert executive privilege over the subpoenaed materials if the panel moved forward on the contempt vote.

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