House panel votes AG William Barr in contempt, escalating probe dispute
WASHINGTON — The House Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress, escalating the Democrats' extraordinary legal battle with the Trump administration over access to special counsel Robert Mueller's Trump-Russia 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.
"Every day we learn of new efforts by this administration to stonewall Congress," Nadler said. "This is unprecedented."
But White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said it was rather a response to the "blatant abuse of power" by Nadler, a Democrat.
"Neither the White House nor Attorney General Barr will comply with Chairman Nadler's unlawful and reckless demands," she said.
Though the White House initially hesitated on invoking privilege, Trump told his staff and political advisers in recent weeks to refuse to cooperate with Democrats, believing the party's goal was simply to damage him politically going into his re-election campaign. The coming legal battle could stretch to 2020, and the White House is aiming to tie up congressional probes until Election Day.
Executive privilege is the president's power to keep information from the courts, Congress and the public to protect the confidentiality of the Oval Office decision-making process.
The president's decision was weeks in the making, the next inevitable escalation between the White House and Congress over a number of probes. The White House has rejected all efforts to probe Trump's business dealings or tax returns as well as the West Wing's security clearance procedure.
The committee voted along party lines, 24-16, to hold Barr in contempt but only after some five hours of heated and, at times, emotional testimony.
Democrats, who have the majority in the House, made their case that Congress was at a historic juncture as it confronts what they consider Trump's stonewalling of lawmakers' ability to conduct oversight of the administration. Republicans portrayed the majority as angry and lashing out at Barr after the special counsel did not find that Trump colluded with Russia to swing the 2016 election.
Said Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas: "The president now seeks to take a wrecking ball to the Constitution of the United States."
And Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana said the road ahead may be "messy" but Democrats must fight to "protect our democracy." Other Democrats called the standoff a "serious" and "grave" moment.
However, the panel's top Republican, Doug Collins of Georgia, said Democrats were manufacturing a crisis and rushing the process to "sully Bill Barr's good name."
Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, a Trump ally, said the Democrats were trying to "delegitimize" the president and biding time before they try to impeach him.
"Get over it," Gaetz said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the next step after the committee vote will be consideration by the full House.
If approved by the House, where the Democrats hold a solid majority, the contempt resolution would almost certainly move to an unusual, and potentially protracted, multi-pronged court battle with the Trump administration.
The House would send a criminal referral to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, a Justice Department official who would be likely to defend rather than oppose Barr. Democratic House leaders could also file a lawsuit, though the case could take months or even years to resolve. Some committee members have suggested they also could fine Barr as he withholds information.