US House Dems move closer to holding Trump officials in contempt

Measure sets up court fight with White House over access to witnesses, documents subpoenaed by committees probing Trump.

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    US Attorney General William Barr testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing [File: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters]
    US Attorney General William Barr testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing [File: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters]

    Washington, DC - A US House of Representatives committee unveiled a resolution on Thursday to hold Attorney General William Barr and former White House Counsel Don McGahn in civil contempt for refusing to testify about Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe.

    The resolution authorises House lawyers to seek enforcement in federal court of subpoenas issued to Barr, McGahn and other present and former Trump administration officials. Democratic leaders intend to bring the measure to a vote in the full House on Tuesday.

    "The Trump administration is waging an unprecedented campaign of stonewalling and obstruction on issues the American people care about, including its attack on healthcare, its inhumane family separation policy, and the countless egregious examples laid out in the Mueller report," Representative James McGovern, chairman of the Rules Committee, said in a statement.

    US President Donald Trump has been engaged in a battle with House Democrats over access to witnesses and documents since the release of the redacted version of an investigative report of Mueller's inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election.

    Attorney General Barr has refused to appear before the House Judiciary Committee to explain his handling of the special counsel investigation into Russian interference.

    Trump instructed McGahn, who was the top lawyer in Trump's White House until October 2018, not to comply with a Judiciary Committee request for his testimony and notes. McGahn is a key witness to many of the possible obstruction of justice incidents identified by Mueller.

    The Judiciary Committee voted to hold Barr in contempt on May 8. Subsequent negotiations between the committee and Barr for access to the full report have failed to yield an agreement.

    President Trump is engaged in "one of the largest cover-ups in any administration that I can recall," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters on Capitol Hill earlier this week.

    Mueller's 22-month investigation was unable to establish a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia despite finding significant contacts between Trump associates and Russians.

    Mueller declined to make a judgment on whether Trump obstructed justice, though the report outlined 10 instances in which Trump tried to impede the investigation.

    Barr and former deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein subsequently determined Trump had not broken the law.

    Breaking his silence and prompting rising calls on Capitol Hill for impeachment proceedings, Mueller said on May 29 that charging Trump was never an option for his team of prosecutors, citing Justice Department guidelines that prohibit charging a sitting president.

    "Charging the president with a crime was ... not an option we could consider," Mueller told reporters. 

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    "We concluded that we would not reach a determination one way or the other about whether the president committed a crime," he said. "If we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so. We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the president did or did not."

    Trump has repeatedly called the Mueller investigation a "witch-hunt" and since its conclusion has called on politicians to "move on". 

    Series of investigations

    Since winning control of the House in November 2018, Democrats had opened a series of investigations into Trump's alleged obstruction of justice and abuses of power. The president has responded by directing his administration officials not to comply with any subpoenas or oversight requests. 

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    "That is unacceptable, contrary to the constitution and contrary to the interests of the American people," Hoyer said.

    Most recently, the Judiciary Committee issued subpoenas to Hope Hicks, Trump's former White House director of communications, and to Annie Donaldson, who was McGahn's secretary and who provided extensive testimony to Mueller. They have both been told by Trump's White House lawyers not to cooperate with Congress.

    Tuesday's vote, if passed, would pave the way for the House Ways and Means Committee to move forward with legal proceedings to obtain six years of Trump's tax returns. The House Oversight Committee is preparing to enforce a subpoena to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross for testimony and documents related to Trump's push to add a citizenship question to the upcoming 2020 census.

    The contempt resolution clarifies short-cut procedures allowing House committees to seek court enforcement of subpoenas with approval from a five-member panel, called the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, without having to obtain approval from the full House.

    "This is the way to enforce the subpoenas and compel witnesses to testify," Hoyer said.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News