President Trump asserted executive privilege Wednesday to block Democrats from obtaining the full special counsel’s report, and the House retaliated by taking the first step to hold Attorney General William P. Barr in contempt of Congress as the clash neared the realms of a “constitutional crisis.”
Mr. Trump’s assertion of privilege came after negotiations over access to special counsel Robert Mueller’s work broke down late Tuesday.
The Justice Department said it expects eventually to narrow its objections, but for now it’s asserted privilege over everything, giving the president time and space to make more careful determinations.
“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,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler rejected that explanation, blaming Mr. Barr for short-circuiting negotiations on access to Mr. Mueller’s work. He also says it’s too late for the president to assert privilege, signaling the likelihood of a court battle where a federal judge will play referee.
“This decision represents a clear escalation in the Trump administration’s blanket defiance of Congress’s constitutionally mandated duties,” Mr. Nadler said.
“We are now in a constitutional crisis,” he added.
His first step Wednesday was to lead his committee in reprimanding Mr. Barr.
The panel voted 24-16 along party lines to recommend contempt proceedings to the whole House, which must hold its own vote.
If that House vote is successful Mr. Barr would become only the second attorney general to be held in contempt. The first was Obama administration Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. who, like Mr. Barr, balked at turning documents over to the House — at that time, led by the GOP.
At issue is the unredacted version of Mr. Mueller’s 448-page report and reams of supporting documents Mr. Mueller compiled.
House Democrats said they wanted it all and issued a subpoena weeks ago demanding access.
They say the material is crucial to their investigative powers and to determine whether impeachment is warranted.
Mr. Barr has released a somewhat redacted version publicly and made a less-redacted version available to 12 members of Congress. That version includes information shielded from the public because of ongoing investigations, privacy concerns and classified information.
But it does not include information Mr. Mueller gleaned from a grand jury, which Mr. Barr says he cannot turn over without breaking the law.
Mr. Barr has defied two deadlines set by Mr. Nadler.
“As we have repeatedly explained, the attorney general could not comply with your subpoena in its current form without violating the law, court rules, and court orders, and without threatening the independence of the Department of Justice’s prosecutorial functions,” Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd wrote in a letter to the Judiciary Committee.
Democrats accuse Mr. Barr of concealing information to protect the president.
They have demanded access to the less-redacted report for more than the current 12 lawmakers, and want more lenient rules about note-taking and talking about the report with colleagues.
Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said both sides had been inching toward progress on those demands. She said Democrats pulled the plug “prematurely.”
“It is deeply disappointing that elected representatives of the American people have chosen to engage in such inappropriate political theatrics,” Ms. Kupec said in a statement.
Mr. Nadler said it was Mr. Barr who soured the negotiations by refusing to budge.
But the chairman did make a major concession during Wednesday’s committee vote.
He said his subpoena, which requested the entire unredacted Mueller report and supporting evidence, wasn’t intended to include grand jury information, which is protected under Rule 6 of the federal rules of criminal procedure.
“The subpoena was never intended to cover Rule 6E, which is why we asked the attorney general to go to court get permission to view 6E material,” Mr. Nadler said. “It was never intended to put him in jeopardy.”
Republicans said that was strange because they’d offered an amendment to the subpoena to carve out grand jury information and it was rejected the last time.
The committee accepted that amendment on Wednesday, though.
That was about the only area of agreement during six hours of committee action that otherwise saw each side question the other’s motives.
“We see the president who is attempting to destroy the basic institutions of government by directing his attorney general and others in his administration to stonewall the American people,” said Rep. David Cicilline, Rhode Island Democrat. “This is a crisis.”
For their part, Republicans said the Democrats were more interested in smearing Mr. Barr than accessing confidential portions of the Mueller report. They also portrayed Democrats as launching a preemptive strike to block Mr. Barr from proceeding with his investigation into the origins of the Russia probe.
“Bill Barr is following the law and what’s his response? Democrats are going to hold him in contempt,” said Rep. Jim Jordan Ohio Republican. “I think it’s all about trying to destroy Bill Barr because Democrats are nervous that he’s going to get to the bottom of everything.”
One Democrat explicitly admitted impeaching is the goal of accessing the full Mueller report.
“How can we impeach without getting the documents?” asked Rep. Hank Johnson, Georgia Democrat.
Democratic leaders said Wednesday they’re confident they have enough votes to approve the contempt resolution when it reaches the chamber floor.
What happens after that is murky.
Congress would need the Justice Department to enforce a criminal contempt citation, and it’s unlikely any U.S. attorney would pursue that case against his or her boss, Mr. Barr. Indeed, Mr. Holder’s Justice Department refused to prosecute him in 2012.
In that instance, the House sued, asking a federal judge to step in and force compliance with its document subpoena.
The case lasted years before a judge rejected the contempt citation, but did order the Justice Department to turn over some documents that weren’t protected by executive privilege.