WASHINGTON — House Judiciary Committee Democrats voted Wednesday to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress after President Donald Trump made his first assertion of executive privilege for the entire Mueller report and underlying evidence.
Following more than five hours of contentious debate, the committee voted along party lines, 24-16, to approve a motion to the House to cite Barr for contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over special counsel Robert Mueller’s complete, unredacted report and evidence.
“This is a very grave, momentous step that we were forced to take today,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan), the committee chairman, after the vote.
“We are now in a constitutional crisis,” he declared, saying it was about “whether we can put limits on the power of the president, any president, and the executive branch, and hold the president, any president, accountable.”
Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) disputed Nadler’s assessment. “The constitutional crisis is a committee that is asking from the attorney general things he says he cannot fill,” he said. “The constitutional crisis is a committee asking not only write the law but enforce the law.”
Following the committee vote, the next step would be consideration of the committee’s motion by the full House. A debate and vote on it would be scheduled by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her leadership team. Ultimately, the matter is expected to end up in court.
The contempt motion and Trump’s assertion of executive privilege to protect the two-volume Mueller report, which resulted in no charges for criminal conspiracy or obstruction, escalated the battle between the White House and House Democrats over their probes of Trump.
Press secretary Sarah Sanders, moments before the hearing began, called the subpoena for the report a “blatant abuse of power” and said, “Neither the White House nor Attorney General Barr will comply with Chairman Nadler’s unlawful and reckless demands.”
Sanders said the president had asserted a “protective executive privilege” of the report, including redacted materials and underlying evidence that was withheld — and even the entire version already made public.
Barr, in a letter Wednesday, urged Trump to assert a “preliminary, protective assertion” of privilege until he makes a final decision about which of the special counsel’s files would be covered, noting that they contain millions of pages of classified and unclassified information.
The Justice Department had warned Nadler that Trump would assert executive privilege if Nadler held his hearing to vote on a contempt motion after talks between it and the committee on the scope of access to the report and materials broke down late Tuesday night.
As he opened the hearing Wednesday, Nadler said the committee is “legally entitled to receive” and “constitutionally obligated to review” the Mueller report, and he criticized the White House claim of executive privilege.
“Besides misapplying the doctrine of executive privilege,” Nadler said, “this decision represents a clear escalation in the Trump administration’s blanket defiance of Congress’s constitutionally mandated duties.”
He added, “The administration has announced — loud and clear — that it does not recognize Congress as a coequal branch with independent constitutional oversight authority and it will continue to wage its campaign of obstruction.”
Republican after Republican attacked the contempt motion and the motivations of Democrats in quickly moving to it, just about three weeks after issuing a subpoena for the complete report and underlying evidence.
"Why this rush?” asked Collins, the top committee Republican. “Without any valid legislative or administrative reason, we can only assume Democrats, led by the chairman, have resolved to sully Bill Barr’s good name and reputation.”
Collins called the contempt resolution “a cynical, mean-spirited, counterproductive and irresponsible step.”
Republicans also accused Democrats of trying to make Barr break the law by revealing grand jury material that cannot be made public. “You cannot be in contempt for failing to produce what would be illegal to produce without a court order,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas).
But Nadler said he was asking Barr to go to court with the committee to get that information released legally. The committee approved by voice vote an amendment to say that the attorney general would not have to break the law by releasing any of the report or evidence.
Pelosi, who has approached the impeachment question with caution, said Wednesday morning before the hearing that Trump, by blocking witnesses and refusing to comply with document requests and subpoenas, is “becoming self-impeachable.”
Nadler on Wednesday also sent a letter to former White House counsel Don McGahn, warning he could be held in contempt of Congress if he doesn’t testify before the committee later this month. McGahn refused to produce documents to the committee after the White House claimed it controls the documents he generated and that he has no legal claims to them.