- The House Judiciary Committee voted on Wednesday to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress for refusing to hand over an unredacted copy of Robert Mueller’s final report on Russian interference.
- Barr provided a partially redacted copy to the public and made multiple attempts to allow certain Democrats to view the report at the Justice Department, but they refused.
- If the contempt charges advance, Barr could face lofty fines or even jail time.
- The last attorney general to be held in contempt of Congress was Eric Holder in 2012 during the Obama administration, but the charges were ultimately tossed out.
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WASHINGTON – The House Judiciary Committee voted on Wednesday to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress, a severe penalty for refusing to comply with requests to hand over an unredacted copy of the special counsel Robert Mueller’s final report in the Russia investigation and its underlying evidence.
The 24-16 vote fell along party lines, as Democrats move forward with a multitude of sprawling inquiries into President Donald Trump and his administration.
Contempt of Congress is a serious charge that can later result in a criminal referral to a US attorney. Though rare, if sought all the way through, maximum penalties could include either a $US100,000 fine or one year in jail.
Democrats took the first formal step toward holding Barr in contempt of Congress on Monday. On Tuesday, the Justice Department responded by threatening to advise President Donald Trump to invoke executive privilege over Mueller’s report in light of Democrats’ actions.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler responded by describing the Justice Department’s threat as “without credibility, merit, or legal or factual basis.”
The markup hearing lasted nearly seven hours, during which Republicans and Democrats went back and forth over the merits of holding Barr in contempt.
Republicans such as Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, a former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, characterised the contempt effort as “a character assassination” and said there was opposition to obtaining an unredacted copy of the Mueller report because it would be leaked to the press within 48 hours.
Democrats suggested it was about transparency and getting to the bottom of what has been a long and tumultuous investigation.
While many Democrats said they were just trying to get to the truth, some continued to bring up the issue of impeaching President Donald Trump, something Democrats have been at odds with one another about for some time.
“This committee, to ensure that we get that report because we have lawful responsibilities – constitutional responsibilities – to engage in. One of which is possibly impeachment,” Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia said. “How can we impeach without getting the documents?”
Barr released a partially redacted copy of Mueller’s report in April, but Democrats were unsatisfied and demanded to view the report in full. Barr had initially offered to provide a copy with even fewer redactions for Democrats to view, but they declined.
Tensions between Barr and congressional Democrats have been high for months, but they intensified in the weeks leading up to the release of the Mueller report.
After Mueller turned in his final report in the Russia probe to Barr in March, the attorney general released a summary of his “principal conclusions” of Mueller’s findings to Congress and the public before making the report available. In the summary, Barr said Mueller did not find sufficient evidence to bring a conspiracy charge against Trump or anyone on his campaign.
Barr also said Mueller declined to make a “traditional prosecutorial judgment” on whether Trump obstructed justice. The attorney general went on to say prosecutors laid out evidence on “both sides” of the issue and did not come to a conclusion because of “difficult issues of law and fact concerning whether the President’s actions and intent could be viewed as obstruction.”
But when the Justice Department finally released a redacted version of the report – which featured a road map of evidence against Trump and 11 potential instances of obstruction of justice – Barr drew immediate backlash for what Democrats said was an effort to shield the president by watering down Mueller’s findings ahead of their release.
Last week, Barr was set to appear before the House and Senate judiciary committees for back-to-back days of testimony about the Mueller report and his controversial decisions leading up to its release. Hours before he appeared before the Senate panel, it surfaced that Mueller wrote two letters expressing concerns to Barr about the way his findings had been portrayed by the attorney general.
After testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the letters and his oversight of the Russia probe, the Justice Department announced Barr would not appear before the House Judiciary Committee the next day.
The committee launched formal proceedings to hold him in contempt after he missed Monday’s deadline to turn over the unredacted Mueller report and its underlying evidence.
The last time Congress voted to hold an attorney general in contempt was in 2012, when Republicans were in the majority. Eric Holder, the attorney general at the time for the Obama administration, had repeatedly refused to hand over documents pertaining to the “Fast and Furious” Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives gun-walking scandal.
Holder’s contempt vote passed the House in bipartisan fashion, with a handful of Democrats joining Republicans to punish the top law-enforcement officer at the time. Ultimately, a federal judge tossed out the charges, and Holder avoided severe penalties.
Other attempts to oust officials for not complying with Congress have taken different routes. During the Obama administration, a small contingent of Republicans repeatedly tried to impeach former IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. They eventually failed and Koskinen finished his term several months into the Trump presidency.