House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler told Fox News that contempt proceedings against Attorney General Bill Barr are still set for Wednesday “at the moment,” and Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., added that “all systems” were “go.”
Nadler, D-N.Y., met with top Democrats in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office Tuesday afternoon, shortly after making those remarks. Raskin said Nadler provided a “status report” about the contempt process to leaders, and told Fox News that it will be up to Pelosi as to whether to bring a contempt resolution to the floor.
In a possible thaw, Nadler said Monday evening that the Justice Department had agreed to meet with his staff Tuesday, adding that he hoped to make “concrete progress” toward resolving the dispute.
And, the Judicary Committee had said contempt proceedings could be postponed if the attorney general made a “good faith” effort to comply with the committee.
But, Nadler’s comments Tuesday suggested that Democrats did not believe their demand had been met in time. It remained unclear whether Democrats would seek to hold Barr in civil, criminal, or inherent contempt of Congress.
In a civil contempt proceeding, Congress would file a lawsuit against Barr and the DOJ. In a criminal one, the House would ask the DOJ to open a case against Barr. Under inherent contempt rules, the House would pursue Barr by enforcing its own congressional powers. (Historically, this method was used to justify the congressional power to effect arrests.)
Regardless of which form it takes, a contempt markup in the House would mark a major opening salvo in what could be a lengthy, acrimonious court battle between House Democrats and President Trump’s administration over Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report.
At issue: the Justice Department refusing to provide the full text of Mueller’s report by the Monday morning deadline. Nadler said Barr’s failure to comply with a subpoena left them with “no choice but to initiate contempt proceedings.”
But, Barr and Republicans have pointed out that sections of the report — including those pertaining to grand jury proceedings — must remain redacted by law, at least for the time being. Barr has offered Democrats the opportunity to view a less redacted version of the report in a secure setting, but they apparently have refused.
Nadler said the version of Mueller’s report that has already been released to the public offered “disturbing evidence and analysis that President Trump engaged in obstruction of justice at the highest levels.” Now, he said, lawmakers need the full version and the underlying evidence “to determine how to best move forward with oversight, legislation and other constitutional responsibilities.”
Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said earlier that the department had “taken extraordinary steps to accommodate the House Judiciary Committee’s requests for information” regarding Mueller’s report, but that Nadler had not reciprocated.
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Kupec said officials were continuing to engage with the committee, and Nadler’s staff had been invited to the department “to discuss a mutually acceptable accommodation.”
If the committee approves the contempt resolution against Barr, as expected, it would head to the full House for final approval, but that step is unlikely to lead to criminal charges. A House vote would send a criminal referral to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, a Justice Department official who is likely to defend the attorney general.
Yet, by pursuing contempt, Democrats clearly hope to send a message to the Trump administration about their willingness to invoke congressional powers in the majority. Beyond Mueller’s report, House Democrats, so far mostly unsuccessfully, have subpoenaed administration witnesses and made efforts to gain access to Trump’s personal and business financial records. Trump has said he would block those efforts, declaring he would “fight all the subpoenas.”
Top House Democrats could file a civil lawsuit against the Justice Department to obtain the Mueller report — an option that could take months or even years to resolve. Some committee members have suggested they also could fine Barr as he withholds the information. They could also open impeachment proceedings against Trump, though Pelosi, D-Calif., has said she’s not interested in doing that, for now.
Republicans have lambasted the Democrats’ tactics as overreach and defended Barr. The top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, said that “Democrats have launched a proxy war smearing the attorney general” when their anger actually lies with the president.
There is precedent for sitting attorneys general to be held in contempt of Congress. In 2012, the House held then-Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt over a botched gun-tracking operation known as “Fast and Furious.” Republicans cited the Justice Department’s failure to turn over, without any preconditions, documents related to the risky operation. The Justice Department took no action to prosecute the attorney general.
Mueller’s report — now a best-seller even in redacted form — stated that his investigation could not establish a criminal conspiracy between the Trump team and Russia. However, it did not reach a conclusion on whether Trump obstructed justice. Mueller didn’t charge Trump but wrote that he couldn’t exonerate him, either.
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House Judiciary Democrats have said Congress would be “the only body able to hold the president to account,” citing the Justice Department’s policy against indicting a sitting president. They have said they need the full report and the evidence that it cited, including witness interviews and “items such as contemporaneous notes.” Nadler also has said he wanted every member of Congress to be able to read the full report.
As the fight with Barr has escalated, Democrats have been in negotiations to hear from Mueller himself. Trump complicated those talks Sunday by tweeting that he would oppose Mueller’s testimony, reversing from his earlier position of leaving it up to Barr.
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As long as Mueller remains a Justice Department employee, Trump or Barr could block him from appearing. Trump did not indicate whether he would take steps to do so. It’s unclear when Mueller will leave the department — or whether he would want to testify in his own capacity when he does.
Nadler said last week the committee was “firming up the date” for Mueller’s testimony and hoping it would be May 15. The Justice Department declined to comment.
Fox News’ Chad Pergram, Caroline McKee and The Associated Press contributed to this report.