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- The House of Representatives voted to authorize committees to sue Attorney General William Barr and former White House counsel Don McGahn to force cooperation with multiple subpoenas using a civil contempt resolution.
- A civil contempt resolution is different from criminal contempt of Congress, which can result in lofty fines or even jail time.
- The House Judiciary Committee issued a subpoena for a full, unredacted copy of the Mueller report and the underlying evidence, but Barr refused to comply. McGahn had been subpoenaed to testify, but the Trump administration directed him not to comply.
- The Justice Department struck a last minute deal on Monday with the House Judiciary Committee to provide certain documents and avoid harsher action from congressional Democrats.
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WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives voted Tuesday to allow a congressional committee to enforce subpoenas by taking uncooperative executive branch officials to court using a civil contempt resolution.
A civil contempt resolution is different from criminal contempt of Congress, which can result in lofty fines or even jail time.
The move comes after the House Judiciary Committee advanced contempt of Congress resolutions for both Attorney General William Barr and former White House counsel Don McGahn, marking the most severe congressional action against President Donald Trump’s administration since Democrats reclaimed the chamber’s majority.
The vote fell straight along party lines, 229-191. The resolution only required a simple majority and only needs to be passed in one chamber of Congress. It came after the House Judiciary Committee hammered out the details of the contempt resolution in a marathon hearing.
Democrats on the committee had issued a subpoena for Barr to hand over a full, unredacted copy of the special counsel report detailing the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, as well as the underlying evidence. But Barr refused to comply with the committee’s demands.
In McGahn’s case, the White House instructed him to not testify before the committee, angering Democrats clamoring to haul in the central figure in Mueller’s obstruction case, and the one official named more times than anyone else in Mueller’s report.
On Monday, House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler struck a deal with the Justice Department to avoid holding Barr in criminal contempt in exchange for certain documents relating to the now-wrapped special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The Justice Department agreed to turn over key evidence from Mueller’s obstruction case to the judiciary committee, which lawmakers believe will significantly aid their investigation into whether President Donald Trump sought to illegally thwart Mueller’s investigation.
Prior to the vote, Nadler called the resolution necessary due to what he characterized as "unprecedented stonewalling" from the Trump administration.
"The committees have a constitutional responsibility to conduct oversight, to make recommendations to the House as necessary, and to craft legislation that will curb the waste, fraud, and abuse on full display in the Trump Administration," Nadler said during a speech on the House floor. "This is why it is important that the Judiciary Committee be able to act in such matters using all of our Article 1 powers, as contemplated in this Resolution and described in both the Rules Committee Report and the House Judiciary Committee’s Contempt Report."
Mueller did not make a "traditional prosecutorial judgment" on whether Trump obstructed justice, citing Justice Department guidelines that say a sitting president cannot be indicted. But prosecutors emphasized that their report did not exonerate Trump, and that if they had confidence the president did not commit a crime, they would have said so.
They also noted that a president is not immune from criminal prosecution once he leaves office and that the constitutional remedy for holding a sitting president accountable for wrongdoing lies with Congress. Mueller cited those two things as reasons why he investigated Trump despite knowing he was prohibited from charging him.
Legal experts say the evidence the Justice Department turns over will likely include FBI notes of interviews with key witnesses in the obstruction case, like McGahn, former FBI officials, and current and former White House staffers.
"If the Department proceeds in good faith and we are able to obtain everything that we need, then there will be no need to take further steps," Nadler said in a statement after striking the deal. "If important information is held back, then we will have no choice but to enforce our subpoena in court and consider other remedies."
Republicans vigorously opposed the contempt charges, echoing offers from Barr himself to allow a handful of Democrats to view a less-redacted report from former FBI Director Robert Mueller.
Being held in contempt of Congress is a rare, but severe penalty, which has happened fewer than 30 times throughout United States history. The most recent case of an attorney general being found in contempt was when Republicans went after Eric Holder during the Barack Obama administration in 2012.
Holder had refused to turn over documents relating to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ gun walking scandal known as "Fast and Furious." A federal judge ultimately tossed out the case in 2014.
In Barr’s case, he could face a lengthy legal battle as Holder did. Whether or not he will is up to the US attorneys, who could very well not pursue the criminal contempt of Congress.
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