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House Judiciary Panel Votes to Hold Barr In Contempt For Failing to Release Full Mueller Report

May 8, 2019 by Dan McCue
Attorney General William Barr

Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee voted to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt on Wednesday evening, capping a day of escalating tensions between the White House and Capitol Hill.

The committee’s 24-16 vote is technically a vote to recommend the full house hold Barr in contempt of Congress.

The panel’s decision, which came after hours of rancorous debate, marked the first time that the House has taken formal action to punish a Trump administration official embroiled in a standoff between the legislative and executive branch.

Earlier on Wednesday, the Trump administration invoked executive privilege, claiming it had the right to block lawmakers from viewing the full report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller on Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.

In a letter delivered to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd said that not only was the White House asserting executive privilege, but the Justice Department was ending its negotiations over the report with the committee.

Boyd said the reason was Nadler’s scheduling an “unnecessary contempt vote” applying to Barr on Wednesday.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a statement that “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.”

In a letter to President Trump, Barr said the special counsel’s files contain millions of pages of classified and unclassified material.

He said it was the committee’s “abrupt resort” to a contempt vote that “has not allowed sufficient time for you to consider fully whether to make a conclusive assertion of executive privilege.”

Barr recommended Trump preemptively assert privilege pending a fuller consideration of the matter.

But Nadler responded by saying the Trump administration’s refusal to provide Congress with the full, unredacted Mueller report presents a “constitutional crisis,” leaving the panel no choice but to move forward with a contempt vote against Barr.

He said Wednesday’s actions amount to nothing less than the president’s “blanket defiance” of Congress’ constitutional rights.

“Every day we learn of new efforts by this administration to stonewall Congress. This is unprecedented,” Nadler said.

Michael J. Gerhardt, the Samuel Ashe Distinguished Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of North Carolina School of Law, said while the country is certainly in the midst of a “constitutional crisis,” it has not yet risen to being a full-blown constitutional “crisis.”

“A constitutional crisis happens, in my judgment, when the two sides cannot agree on whether the constitution has an answer to their dispute,” Gerhardt said. “At the moment it appears that each side thinks the courts can resolve this.

“No doubt the president thinks turning to the courts will delay an answer and he hopes he can make this a campaign issue,” the professor continued. “The House Democrats are protecting their institutional prerogatives. But even Nixon agreed by the end [of his presidency] that Congress has its prerogatives which he cannot stymie.”

Eric Freedman, the Siggi B. Wilzig Distinguished Professor of Constitutional Rights at the law school at Hofstra University in New York, said he also doesn’t believe the dispute between the administration and Congress has reached the crisis stage.

“The only potential for a constitutional crisis will occur if the grown-ups in the room allow themselves to be distracted from their serious work by the bawling of President Trump from the sidelines,” Freedman said.

“Issues like these have since the beginning [of the Republic] been resolved by negotiations, frequently after some public posturing, because the risks to the institutions involved and ultimately the country are too great to permit either side the luxury of going for broke,” he said. “The most likely outcome in this situation, as with the federal government shutdown crisis, is that a compromise will be reached in due course.”

But former Massachusetts Governor William Weld, who is challenging Trump for the Republican nomination in the 2020 election, said the president seems “determined to model his response to the Mueller investigation on Richard Nixon’s response to Watergate.

“Like Nixon,” Weld said, “he is inappropriately using executive privilege to try and prevent Congress from seeing evidence of his criminal conduct. The courts rejected that during Watergate, and they will reject it again here.”

“The Republican Party deserves better than a candidate who makes a mockery of our long-standing support for the rule of law,” Weld continued. “And the American people deserve better than a President who uses the power of his office to protect himself, rather than advance our national interests.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D- Md., also issued a statement in which he said: “Our Constitution gives the American people, through their Congress, the right to demand answers from the President and his Administration to ensure they are acting on their behalf and to hold them accountable for their actions in office.  

“Today’s vote by the House Judiciary Committee was the necessary consequence of this Administration’s unprecedented pattern of stonewalling and obstruction that is putting our very democracy at risk,” Hoyer said. “It was about transparency, accountability, and pursuing the facts on behalf of the American people.  

“While we will continue to ensure that Congress’s proper oversight role is carried out, House Democrats will not allow the President, his advisors, or his associates to distract us from the work the American people elected us to undertake,” the majority leader continued. “Even as we uphold Congress’s responsibility and Constitutional authority to oversee the executive branch, we will continue to advance legislation to make health care affordable and accessible to all and to expand economic opportunity.”

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