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By Mike Memoli, Alex Moe, Jamie Knodel and Rebecca Shabad
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has asserted executive privilege over special counsel Robert Mueller’s unredacted report as the House Judiciary Committee prepares to vote to hold his attorney general, William Barr, in contempt of Congress.
Faced with “blatant abuse of power” by Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., the president “has no other option than to make a protective assertion of executive privilege,” the White House said Wednesday.
The committee vote and Trump’s assertion of privilege represents a major escalation of the battle between congressional Democrats and the president. It will likely lead to a protracted legal war over Mueller’s 448-page report on alleged obstruction of justice by Trump and Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
The Justice Department had told lawmakers Tuesday ahead of the session that it would recommend that Trump assert executive privilege to that material.
Members of the Judiciary Committee were expected to spend the Wednesday markup discussing the resolution to hold Barr in contempt, as well as a supporting 27-page report in which Democrats raised the prospect of impeachment as a result of their investigation relating to the Mueller probe.
In his opening remarks, Nadler said it was “not a step we take lightly,” but rather the “culmination of nearly three months of requests, discussions and negotiations with the Department of Justice.”
“In response to our latest good-faith offer, the Department abruptly announced that if we move forward today, it would ask President Trump to invoke what it refers to as a protective assertion of executive privilege on all of the materials subject to our subpoena. Just minutes ago, it took that dramatic step,” Nadler continued.
“Let me be clear: The information we are requesting is entirely within our legal rights to receive and is no different from what has been provided to Congress on numerous occasions, going back nearly a century,” he added.
Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., the ranking member of the committee, said in his opening statement that Democrats on the committee were rushing the oversight process because they are “angry” that “the special counsel’s report did not produce the material or conclusions they expected to pave their path to impeaching the president” — sullying Barr’s reputation in the process.
“I ask you to recognize that craven and insincere politics yield anemic dividends for Americans who have asked us to legislate,” Collins said. “As I have told you on multiple occasions and proved at last week’s pharmaceuticals markup, I stand ready to work with you to promote solutions. I will not, though, become a bystander as you assail the attorney general and this committee. Our democracy deserves better.”
Once the Judiciary Committee signs off on the contempt resolution, it will go to a vote in the full House. The timing of that vote would be up to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Speaking at a Washington Post event Wednesday, Pelosi said that the attorney general “should be held in contempt,” something she had declined to weigh in on as recently as Tuesday.
In a letter sent Tuesday night to Nadler after negotiations between committee lawyers and Justice Department over accessing redacted portions of the report, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd called the panel’s continued demands for materials “unreasonable” and urged them to delay Wednesday’s scheduled vote to initiate the contempt process.
“If the committee decides to proceed in spite of this request, however, the Attorney General will advise the President to make a protective assertion of executive privilege,” Boyd wrote.
Nadler responded sharply, calling the Justice Department’s continued obstruction of congressional oversight requests “dangerous.”
“The Department’s decision reflects President Trump’s blanket defiance of Congress’s constitutionally mandated duties. In the coming days, I expect that Congress will have no choice but to confront the behavior of this lawless Administration,” Nadler said in a statement.
The Justice Department’s letter said that providing all the materials requested by Democrats would put ongoing investigations at risk, and in the case of grand jury material “force the Department to ignore existing law.” Assertion of privilege would be consistent with past administration practice.
Nadler disagreed. “This is, of course, not how executive privilege works,” he said in a statement late Tuesday. “The White House waived these privileges long ago, and the department seemed open to sharing these materials with us earlier today. The department’s legal arguments are without credibility, merit, or legal or factual basis.”
In mid-April, Nadler issued a subpoena for the full Mueller report and key underlying evidence, setting a May 1 deadline for Barr to provide the materials. That day, Nadler rejected a limited offer from Barr that would have allowed 12 members of Congress to view a less-redacted version of the report in person but permit them from discussing it with other members of Congress.
On the May 1 deadline, Barr sent a letter to Nadler laying out his reasons for not submitting the report. The attorney general was scheduled to appear before the House Judiciary Committee the following day, but declined to appear.
On May 3, Nadler wrote Barr asking him to make a good faith effort to comply with the subpoena by Monday. That deadline was missed, and that same day, the committee announced a markup of a contempt citation for the attorney general. Later that day, the DOJ proposed to the committee a meeting to begin negotiation of “an acceptable accommodation” on access to the full report on Wednesday afternoon.
Nadler requested the meeting five times over the past six weeks, in letters on March 25, April 1, April 11, April 19, and May 3.
When Republicans controlled the House in 2012, they voted to hold President Barack Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, in contempt over the administration’s failure to turn over documents related to the Fast and Furious scandal. In 2014, a federal judge declined the committee’s bid to hold Holder in contempt of court.