White House instructs Don McGahn to ignore a congressional subpoena for documents related to the Mueller probe.
The White House on Wednesday took the aggressive step of invoking “executive privilege” to block the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller‘s full Russia report as a Democratic-led United States congressional panel moved towards holding Attorney General William Barr in contempt for refusing to hand over the document.
The move announced by the White House marked another intensification in a constitutional clash between the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and Republican President Donald Trump. Barr has refused to comply with a subpoena by the House Judiciary Committee to provide an unredacted version of the report and its underlying evidence.
Executive privilege is a right claimed by presidents to withhold information about internal executive branch deliberations from other branches of government.
Reacting to the decision, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler said the White House was “misapplying the doctrine of executive privilege” with a decision that “represents a clear escalation in the Trump administration’s blanket defiance of Congress’s constitutionally mandated duties”.
“I can only conclude that the president now seeks to take a wrecking ball to the Constitution of the United States of America,” said Democratic Representative Sheila Jackson Lee.
The White House said the actions of Democrats forced the move.
“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,” said White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress, said Trump’s moves to thwart congressional subpoenas were obstructing politicians’ oversight of his administration.
“Every single day the president is making the case,” and “he’s becoming self-impeachable,” Pelosi told the Washington Post shortly before Trump invoked executive privilege, referring to the impeachment process in Congress for removing a president from office.
Trump is stonewalling numerous investigations by the Democrats, who control the House, of his administration, family and business interests, with court action likely to follow.
The Judiciary Committee was slated to vote on a resolution recommending that the full House find Barr in contempt of Congress, even as committee staffers and Justice Department officials worked behind the scenes in the hopes of a deal to avert such action.
“The American people see through Chairman Nadler’s desperate ploy to distract from the President’s historically successful agenda and our booming economy. Neither the White House nor Attorney General Barr will comply with Chairman Nadler’s unlawful and reckless demands,” Sanders said.
Judiciary Committee Republicans condemned the move towards holding Barr in contempt.
“What a cynical, mean-spirited, counterproductive and irresponsible step it is,” said the panel’s top Republican, Doug Collins.
Barr last month released a 448-page redacted version of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on his 22-month investigation into Russian election meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Nadler subpoenaed the full document and all underlying evidence, saying the material was necessary for politicians to determine whether Trump obstructed justice by trying to impede the Mueller probe. Barr missed two subpoena deadlines for turning over the material, the latest on Monday.
“We remain unanimously determined on our side of the aisle to get the unredacted report, as we’ve demanded,” Representative Jamie Raskin, a Democrat on Nadler’s committee, told reporters.
Democrat Ted Deutch said that executive privilege “is not a cloak of secrecy that drapes across our nation’s capital from the White House to the Justice Department”.
He accused the attorney general of “stonewalling” and “misleading people”.
“He is actively working to suppress the truth,” Deutch said on Wednesday.
Representative Doug Collins, the panel’s ranking Republican, criticised Nadler in a statement late on Tuesday for rejecting Justice officials’ “accommodations”, and praised “the department’s endurance”.
The House, then controlled by Republicans, voted in 2012 to hold Eric Holder, attorney general under Democratic President Barack Obama, in contempt for failing to turn over subpoenaed Justice Department documents about a gun-running investigation called Operation Fast and Furious. It was the first time that Congress had held the top US law enforcement official or any Cabinet member in contempt.
The redacted Mueller report details extensive contacts between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Moscow as well as the campaign’s expectation of benefiting from Russia’s actions.
It did not establish that the Trump campaign conspired with Russian operatives. The investigation did, however, examine “multiple acts by the president that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations”.
Mueller did not conclude that Trump committed obstruction of justice, but did not exonerate him either. Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein subsequently concluded that Trump did not break the law.
The Justice Department has made a less redacted version available for House and Senate leaders and some committee heads, but the Democrats have said that is not enough and have so far declined to read it.
On Tuesday, the Trump administration stymied a separate effort by House Judiciary Committee Democrats to subpoena records from former White House Counsel Don McGahn, directing him not to provide the documents sought by the panel.
Mueller’s report said McGahn told investigators that Trump unsuccessfully pressured him to remove Mueller and then asked him to deny that Trump had done so. The accounts are based partly on the documents sought by House Democrats.
The Trump administration has refused to cooperate with congressional probes in at least a half-dozen instances, including Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin’s decision on Monday to deny a request for Trump’s tax returns from the Democratic chairman of the House tax committee.
With additional reporting by William Roberts in Washington, DC.