WASHINGTON – The House Judiciary Committee debated Wednesday whether to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress for refusing to provide special counsel Robert Mueller’s entire unredacted report to lawmakers. Democrats who control the House appeared poised to move forward with the contempt action.

“This is not a step we take lightly,” Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. said to a standing-room-only audience in the hearing room, as spectators lined the room.

Nadler accused the Justice Department of moving forward with a “clear escalation” of differences with the House by asserting executive privilege over the documents sought by the committee. He called the department’s action an “unprecedented obstruction by the administration which has now vowed to block all attempts at government oversight.”

But the top Republican on the committee, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, blasted the proposed action as a continuation of the Democrats’ “war on the administration” through a “cynical, counter-productive” action.

President Donald Trump signed a memorandum Wednesday asserting executive privilege, to keep the redacted portions of the Mueller report secret.

The committee recessed from 1:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. EDT for floor votes. 

Before adopting the resolution, the committee voted 20-12 to approve a Nadler amendment that rejected Trump’s claim of executive privilege to block access to the report. Nadler said the privilege assertion is “not a valid claim…because executive privilege has been broadly waived in this case as a matter of law and fact.”

The clash between the executive and legislative branches sets in motion a constitutional showdown over how much information the Justice Department must provide to Congress. The Judiciary Committee was the first to move to contempt proceedings among a variety of investigations that House committees launched against the president and his administration.

What is contempt?: What is that and can it actually be used?

How often does contempt happen?: Rarely

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders repeated Trump’s belief that Mueller and others should not have to testify before the House, and the Mueller report should be the last work on the Russia investigation.

“This is over,” Sanders said. “I am 100% certain Jerry Nadler is not going to find something that Mueller couldn’t.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told The Washington Post on Wednesday that Barr should be held in contempt for refusing to release the complete Mueller report to Congress.

“Yes, I think that the attorney general should be held in contempt,” Pelosi said.

Disputes about contempt vote

Throughout the debate, Democrats repeatedly attacked the administration’s claim of privilege to block access to Mueller’s report.

“This is not about executive privilege, this is about burying the evidence,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif.

“Are you kidding me? You can’t assert executive privilege after the fact,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., noting that Sanders and former White House counsel Don McGahn each talked to Mueller.

But Republicans accused Democrats of holding political theater rather than pursuing serious government oversight.

Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., said Democrats remain in “denial” of the president’s election.

“For two years now, there has been this non-stop (claim) that the Trump campaign was colluding with Russia,” Lesko said. “I believe this was done for headlines. This is good political theater; a political show. But are we getting things done? The answer is no.”

Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., accused Democrats of “weaponizing” their majority to take down the attorney general.

Negotiations for settlement collapsed

Justice Department officials met Tuesday with committee staffers to negotiate a possible resolution to the conflict. But the talks were unsuccessful.

Nadler said Barr’s failure to comply with a subpoena for the full report left no choice but to initiate contempt proceedings. After the committee vote, the full House will consider the resolution.

“To those who could announce the case closed,” Nadler said effectively “enabled” the administration to ignore necessary oversight. “This obstruction would mean the end to government oversight,” he said, urging members to “stand up” to the administration.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said the president intended to “take a wrecking ball to the Constitution of the United States.” She referred to a recent petition signed by hundreds of federal prosecutors who asserted that Mueller had gathered sufficient evidence of obstruction by the president who repeatedly sought to limit and derail the investigation.

“The attorney general’s actions are contemptuous,” Jackson Lee said. “I happen to believe 700 former prosecutors.”

Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., said the panel’s contempt action was warranted by Barr’s defiance of the committee’s subpoena.

“Somebody said we were afraid,” Cohen said. “Yes, we’re afraid. We’re afraid of the loss of the rule of law.”

CLOSE

Attorney General William Barr made good Thursday on his threat to skip a House hearing into Russian interference in the 2016 election
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Republicans argued that the Justice Department had made a reasonable offer to provide increased access to the Mueller report. But Collins said that option was rejected because the committee’s leadership chose to move at “lightning speed” in pursuit of a contempt vote against the attorney general.

“Our democracy deserves better,” Collins said.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said the Democrats’ demand for the unredacted report effectively requires the attorney general to “break the law” by releasing protected grand jury information elicited by Mueller’s investigators.

“There is a character assassination squad running around this town,” Sensenbrenner said. “What we’re doing here is forcing the attorney general to break the law.”

Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, said the panel’s leadership was seeking to “destroy” the attorney general.

“Our Democrats are really ticked off by the conclusions of the Mueller report because it found that the allegations of collusion were a big fat zero,” Chabot said.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, launched into his now-signature rapid fire repudiation of the Democratic leadership and criticism of the FBI’s handling of the Russia investigation.

“Bill Barr was following the law. What’s his reward? They are holding him in contempt,” Jordan said.

Impeachment mentioned in debate

Lawmakers from both parties said the contempt proceeding and the pursuit of more information about the Mueller report could ultimately lead to impeaching Trump, even though Pelosi and Nadler have downplayed that option.

Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., said Barr’s refusal to turn over the full report was part of “a coverup.”

“We must get this document,” he said, in order to decide whether to pursue impeachment. “The American people expect us to get it.”

But Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., said Wednesday’s debate had “nothing to do with Bill Barr.”

“This is all about impeaching the president,” Gaetz said.

Constitutional fight brewed for weeks

The Judiciary Committee fight has been brewing for weeks, since Mueller submitted his 448-page report to Barr on March 22.

Barr defended his handling of the report during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week. He initially released a four-page summary of Mueller’s conclusions, finding no conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russians seeking to influence the 2016 election.

Mueller found 10 episodes of potential obstruction of justice, but reached no decision on whether to charge Trump. Barr consulted with other Justice Department lawyers before deciding no obstruction charges were warranted.

Barr released a redacted version of Mueller’s report on April 18. He withheld four types of information from the report dealing with grand-jury evidence, information that could affect pending cases, intelligence secrets or information that could affect the privacy of people not charged.

House Democratic leaders including Pelosi have insisted on seeing the entire report. The House panel subpoenaed the full report April 19 and Nadler set a deadline of Monday.

But Barr said he has provided as much transparency as possible about the report. Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd sent the committee a five-page letter May 1 explaining the reasons for not releasing the entire report.

The committee adopted by voice vote an amendment from Gaetz that clarified that grand-jury information won’t be subject to the subpoena. The subpoena applies to Barr’s other three categories of redactions and for the underlying evidence that Mueller gathered to prepare his report, Nadler said.

Contributing: David Jackson

More about reaction in Congress to special counsel Robert Mueller’s report:

‘We’re out of it.’ Attorney General Barr defends release, conclusions of special counsel’s Russia report

‘Case closed': Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declares Robert Mueller’s Russia probe over

Mueller report: Criminal investigation moves to political realm as Barr summarizes for Congress

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