The House Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to recommend the House hold Attorney General William P. Barr in contempt of Congress for failing to turn over Robert S. Mueller III’s unredacted report, hours after President Trump asserted executive privilege to shield the full report and underlying evidence from public view.
The committee’s 24-16 contempt vote, taken after hours of debate that featured apocalyptic language about the future of American democracy, marked the first time that the House has taken official action to punish a government official or witness amid a standoff between the legislative and executive branch. The Justice Department decried it as an unnecessary and overwrought reaction designed to stoke a fight.
The drama raised the stakes yet again in an increasingly tense battle over evidence and witnesses as Democrats investigate Mr. Trump and his administration. By the day’s end, it seemed all but inevitable that the competing claims would have to be settled in the nation’s courts rather than on Capitol Hill, as Democrats had initially hoped after the initial delivery of Mr. Mueller’s report.
“Our fight is not just about the Mueller Report — although we must have access to the Mueller report. Our fight is about defending the rights of Congress, as an independent branch, to hold the president, any president, accountable,” said Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the Judiciary Committee chairman, during a grueling debate that ended with a vote along party lines.
The executive privilege assertion was Mr. Trump’s first use of the secrecy powers as president. The Justice Department described it as “protective” to allow Mr. Trump time to fully review the materials to make a final privilege determination. But the timing of the assertion signaled that the White House is eager for a fight, and the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, indicated that no change of heart was coming.
“The American people see through Chairman Nadler’s desperate ploy to distract from the president’s historically successful agenda and our booming economy,” she said in a statement. “Neither the White House nor Attorney General Barr will comply with Chairman Nadler’s unlawful and reckless demands.”
If the full House follows the committee’s recommendation, it would be only the second time in American history that the nation’s top law enforcement official is found to be in contempt of Congress. It was not immediately clear when such a vote would occur, and the intervening period could allow Mr. Barr time to negotiate a compromise.
Stephen E. Boyd, the Justice Department’s top congressional liaison, delivered news of the executive privilege claim to Mr. Nadler in writing shortly before the hearing begins.
“Regrettably, you have made this assertion necessary by your insistence upon scheduling a premature contempt vote,” he wrote. Mr. Barr had requested Mr. Trump make the claim after it was clear Democrats would proceed with contempt.
Mr. Barr released a redacted version of the special counsel’s 448-page report voluntarily last month. But Democrats say that is not good enough, and they have accused the attorney general of stonewalling a legitimate request, and then subpoena for, material, including secretive grand jury information and other evidence, they need to carry out an investigation into possible obstruction of justice and abuse of power by Mr. Trump.
Lawmakers convened a little after 10 a.m. Wednesday to formally draft and vote on the committee’s 27-page contempt report. The document lays out the committee’s need for the report and offers an accounting of attempts to get Mr. Barr to share the materials first voluntarily and then under subpoena.
“Although the committee has attempted to engage in accommodations with Attorney General Barr for several months, it can no longer afford to delay, and must resort to contempt proceedings,” the report reads.
The Justice Department had tried to stave off the committee vote, offering to lawmakers some concessions around a less redacted version of the Mueller report that Democrats ultimately deemed insufficient.
Complying with the subpoena, Mr. Boyd wrote, would require the department to violate “the law, court rules, and court orders” as well as grand jury secrecy rules. Republicans in the Judiciary Committee hearing room returned to that point again and again as they accused Democrats of putting Mr. Barr in an untenable situation of choosing between their subpoena and the law.
Democrats said they did not expect Mr. Barr to break the law and unilaterally release grand jury secrets. Rather, they said they had repeatedly asked him to join the committee in petitioning a judge to unseal material for the grand jury for committee use. He refused. Democrats agreed to an amendment from Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida, that clarified the committee did not expect Mr. Barr to break the law and unilaterally release the grand jury material.
Democrats view the president’s privilege claim as bunk, since much of the report and evidence have either been released publicly or shared with lawyers in the special counsel case.
Still, Mr. Trump’s invoking of privilege for the first time as president could tie up the material in court and significantly complicate Democrats’ efforts to call other witnesses. Mr. Nadler said Wednesday it could delay a potential hearing with Mr. Mueller himself in the Judiciary Committee. And it could also limit testimony by Donald F. McGahn II, a former White House counsel and key witness in the special counsel’s investigation, scheduled under subpoena for May 21.
There is little precedent for holding an attorney general, or any cabinet-level official, in contempt. House Republicans did it for the first time in 2012, when they held Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt in connection with requests for information about the botched “Fast and Furious” gun trafficking investigation. Republicans frequently cited that case on Wednesday in an effort to paint Democrats as unreasonable and impatient. They had waited hundreds of days before escalating their fight over documents to a contempt citation, they said. Democrats waited just a few weeks in the case of Mr. Barr.
“Why this rush?” asked Representative Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the committee. “Without any valid legislative or administrative reason, we can only assume Democrats, led by the chairman, have resolved to sully Bill Barr’s good name and reputation.”
The example is a potentially cautionary one for both sides. Despite President Barack Obama’s assertion of executive privilege over the material in questions, House lawmakers ultimately prevailed in court, forcing the administration to hand over the evidence. But the process took years to play out and could have taken longer if the Obama administration had appealed a court’s decision.
In this case, a contempt citation does not guarantee an outcome Democrats want. While defying a congressional subpoena is technically a misdemeanor crime, it is up to the Justice Department to decide whether or not to prosecute. And though Democrats have mused in recent weeks about the authority of the House to apply punishments, including fines and detention, those outcomes have little modern precedent and are unlikely to actually be pursued.
Instead, a contempt citation would effectively push the dispute into the courts, where a judge could decide whether to force the administration to hand over the material. But that process could take months or much longer.
Republicans on the committee rose one after another to defend the president and the attorney general. Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin who was one of the “managers” of President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, criticized Democrats for lending support to a “character assassination squad running around this town” sullying innocent people.
“What we’re doing here is forcing the attorney general to break the law, to place in jeopardy innocent people who are not involved in any of the things that Mr. Mueller ended up investigating and shaming ourselves in the process,” he said.
Democrats were equally apocalyptic in their language. “I can only conclude that the president now seeks to take a wrecking ball to the Constitution of the United States of America,” said Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas.
Representative Ted Deutch, Democrat of Florida, called the administration’s stonewalling “the definition of a constitutional crisis.”