The White House on Wednesday invoked the legal principle of executive privilege to block the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s unredacted Russia report as a U.S. House panel met to vote on holding Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress for refusing to hand over the document.
The White House’s move escalated a constitutional clash between the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and Republican President Donald Trump over its powers to investigate him, his administration, his family and his business interests.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress, said Trump’s moves to thwart subpoenas were obstructing oversight by lawmakers and inquiries into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, the subject of Mueller’s report.
“Every single day the president is making the case. He’s becoming self-impeachable,” Pelosi told the Washington Post, referring to the impeachment process in Congress to remove a president from office. Pelosi added that she believed that Barr, the top U.S. law enforcement official and a Trump appointee, should be held in contempt of Congress.
Barr, who last month released a redacted 448-page version of the Mueller report on the findings of his 22-month inquiry, has refused to comply with a subpoena by the House Judiciary Committee to provide an unredacted version and its underlying evidence.
Executive privilege is a right claimed by presidents to withhold information about internal executive branch deliberations from other branches of government.
Democrats condemned the White House for claiming that right to defy the committee’s subpoena seeking the report.
House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler said the White House was misapplying the doctrine of executive privilege in “a clear escalation in the Trump administration’s blanket defiance of Congress’s constitutionally mandated duties.”
“I can only conclude that the president now seeks to take a wrecking ball to the Constitution of the United States of America,” added Democratic Representative Sheila Jackson Lee.
The White House said the actions of Democrats forced the move.
“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,” said White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders.
Trump is stonewalling numerous investigations by House Democrats, ranging from Mueller’s probe to Trump’s tax returns and his past financial records and White House granting of high-level security clearances to member of his family. Court action is likely to follow.
The Judiciary Committee was slated to vote on a resolution recommending that the full House find Barr in contempt of Congress.
“The American people see through Chairman Nadler’s desperate ploy to distract from the President’s historically successful agenda and our booming economy. Neither the White House nor Attorney General Barr will comply with Chairman Nadler’s unlawful and reckless demands,” Sanders said.
Judiciary Committee Republicans condemned the move toward holding Barr in contempt. “What a cynical, mean-spirited, counterproductive and irresponsible step it is,” said the panel’s top Republican, Doug Collins.
Nadler subpoenaed the full document and all underlying evidence, saying the material was necessary for lawmakers to determine whether Trump obstructed justice by trying to impede the Mueller probe. Barr missed two subpoena deadlines for turning over the material, the latest on Monday.
Representative Matt Gaetz said the actions by the panel’s Democrats are “all about impeachment” of Trump, who is seeking re-election in 2020. Fellow Republican Representative Steve Chabot accused Democrats of trying to destroy and discredit Barr.
When the House was controlled by Republicans, it voted in 2012 to hold Eric Holder, attorney general under Democratic President Barack Obama, in contempt for failing to turn over subpoenaed Justice Department documents about a gun-running investigation called Operation Fast and Furious. It was the first time that Congress had held the top U.S. law enforcement official or any Cabinet member in contempt.
The redacted Mueller report details extensive contacts between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Moscow as well as the campaign’s expectation of benefiting from Russia’s actions. But Mueller said there was not sufficient evidence to show a criminal conspiracy between Moscow and the campaign. The report also describes a series of actions Trump took to try to impede Mueller’s investigation.
On Tuesday, the Trump administration stymied a separate effort by House Judiciary Committee Democrats to subpoena records from former White House counsel Don McGahn, directing him not to provide the documents sought by the panel.
Mueller’s report said McGahn told investigators that Trump unsuccessfully pressured him to remove Mueller and then asked him to deny that Trump had done so. The accounts are based partly on the documents sought by House Democrats.
The Trump administration has refused to cooperate with congressional probes in at least a half-dozen instances, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s decision on Monday to deny a request for Trump’s tax returns from the Democratic chairman of the House tax committee.