House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler after the vote. Image Credit: AFP

Washington: The US House Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to recommend that the House hold Attorney General William P. Barr in contempt of Congress for failing to turn over Robert Mueller’s unredacted report.

The vote capped a day of ever-deepening dispute between congressional Democrats and President Donald Trump, who for the first time invoked the principle of executive privilege, claiming the right to block lawmakers from the full report on Mueller’s probe of Russian interference to help Trump in the 2016 election.

Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York declared the action by Trump’s Justice Department a clear new sign of the president’s “blanket defiance” of Congress’ constitutional rights to conduct oversight. “We did not relish doing this, but we have no choice,” Nadler said after the vote. The White House’s blockade, he said, “is an attack on the ability of the American people to know what the executive branch is doing.” He said, “This cannot be.”

Is the US constitution in crisis?

The committee’s 24-16 contempt vote was the first official House action to punish a government official in the standoff over the Mueller report. The Justice Department denounced the move as unnecessary and intended to stoke a fight.

Chairman Nadler’s actions have terminated the accommodation process and forced the president to assert executive privilege to preserve the status quo.

- Kerri Kupec, Justice Department spokeswoman

After the vote, Nadler swatted away questions about possible impeachment, but added, “We are now in a constitutional crisis.”

The contempt vote raised the stakes in the battle over evidence and witnesses as Democrats investigate Trump over behaviour detailed by Mueller, the special counsel, in his report on Russian election interference and possible obstruction of justice. By the day’s end, it seemed all but inevitable that the competing claims would have to be settled in the nation’s courts rather than on Capitol Hill. “Our fight is not just about the Mueller report — although we must have access to the Mueller report,” Nadler said during a debate. “Our fight is about defending the rights of Congress, as an independent branch, to hold the president, any president, accountable.”

What did the White House say?

The Justice Department, the White House and House Republicans lined up to contest that claim, shooting back that Democrats were the ones abusing their powers to manufacture a crisis.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, Kerri Kupec, deplored the contempt vote as “politically motivated and unnecessary,” and the two sides traded blame over who had cut off weeks of negotiations over a possible compromise.

“Regrettably, Chairman Nadler’s actions have prematurely terminated the accommodation process and forced the president to assert executive privilege to preserve the status quo,” Kupec said. “No one, including Chairman Nadler and his committee, will force the Department of Justice to break the law.”

What’s so big about executive privilege?

Though Trump has repeatedly tried to withhold information from Congress, and pledged to object to all House subpoenas, the executive privilege assertion is his first use of the secrecy powers as president.

The Justice Department, which asked the president to step in, described the assertion as a “protective” measure that would give Trump time to fully review the materials before making a final determination about executive privilege. But the timing signalled that the White House was eager for a fight.

“The American people see through Chairman Nadler’s desperate ploy to distract from the president’s historically successful agenda and our booming economy,” said the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders. It was not immediately clear when the full House would vote, and the intervening period could allow Barr time to negotiate. Nadler said he expected a House vote “rapidly.”

What happens now?

After a contempt vote, the House would most likely to file a lawsuit seeking to enforce their subpoena, but the ensuing legal process could take years, effectively stalling Democrats’ quest. Passage of such a resolution would be only the second time in American history that the nation’s top law enforcement official is found to be in contempt of Congress.

US Rep. Pramila Jayapal holds images of William Barr and Rod Rosenstein during the vote. Image Credit: Reuters

The Judiciary Committee was not the only House panel locked in conflict over the material. During the contempt hearing on Wednesday, the Intelligence Committee quietly sent the Justice Department its own subpoena for the full Mueller report and underlying evidence, as well as any counter-intelligence and foreign intelligence material generated during the special counsel investigation. The panel likewise blamed the department for failing to accommodate its bipartisan oversight interest in the material and argued that as the body that oversees the intelligence community, it had special authorities to view the secretive material.

How did the controversy start?

Barr last month voluntarily released a redacted version of the special counsel’s 448-page report, which concluded that despite ample efforts by the Kremlin, the Trump campaign did not conspire with Russia to undermine the 2016 presidential election. Mueller also laid out at least 10 instances of possible obstruction of justice, and said he could not make a traditional judgement because of various legal constraints.

But Democrats say Barr’s version is not good enough, and they have accused the attorney general of stonewalling a legitimate request for material they need to pick up an investigation into possible obstruction of justice and abuse of power by Trump. The Democrats’ request includes secretive grand jury information and other evidence.

So what wrong has Barr done?

The committee’s 27-page contempt report lays out the panel’s need for the report and offers an accounting of attempts to get Barr to share the materials first voluntarily and then under subpoena. The Justice Department had tried to stave off the committee vote, offering to lawmakers some concessions around a less redacted version of the Mueller report that omitted only grand jury material. Democrats deemed the offer insufficient.

The Justice Department had other objections to the subpoena. Compliance would require the department to violate “the law, court rules, and court orders” as well as grand jury secrecy rules, a Justice Department official, Stephen E. Boyd, wrote. Republicans on the committee seized on that point to accuse Democrats of forcing Barr to choose between complying with their subpoena or the law.

Won’t Barr break the law to comply with the House?

But Democrats said they did not expect Barr to break the law and unilaterally release grand jury secrets, but rather to join them in petitioning a judge to unseal material for the grand jury for committee use. Nadler said after the vote that Democrats intended to go to the judge on their own authority. Democrats view the president’s executive privilege claim as nonsense, since much of the report and evidence has either been released publicly or shared with lawyers.

What have Democrats said?

Democrats’ frustration in the hearing room was clear. “I can only conclude that the president now seeks to take a wrecking ball to the Constitution of the United States of America,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas.

Republicans rose one after another to defend the attorney general and urge the Democrats to turn their investigative focus to the origins of what they see as a special counsel investigation cooked up to smear the president.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, Republican-Wisconsin, who was one of the “managers” of President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, criticised Democrats for lending support to a “character assassination squad running around this town” sullying innocent people.

Has a US attorney-general ever been held in contempt?

There is little precedent for holding an attorney general in contempt. House Republicans did it for the first time in 2012 for Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in connection with requests for information about the botched “Fast and Furious” gun trafficking investigation. Republicans cited that case frequently on Wednesday in an effort to paint Democrats as unreasonable. They had waited hundreds of days before escalating their fight over documents to a contempt citation, they said. Democrats waited just a few weeks in the case of Barr.

The example is a potentially cautionary one for both sides. Despite President Barack Obama’s assertion of executive privilege over the material in questions, House lawmakers ultimately prevailed in court, forcing the administration to hand over the evidence. But the process took years to play out and could have taken longer if the Obama administration had appealed a court’s decision.