US House to vote on measure making it easier to enforce subpoenas

Vote comes as House Democrats ramp up their investigations related to Trump and the Mueller probe.

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    The House Judiciary chairman has said he will hold off on a threat to bring criminal contempt charges against US Attorney General William Barr [Carlos Barria/Reuters]
    The House Judiciary chairman has said he will hold off on a threat to bring criminal contempt charges against US Attorney General William Barr [Carlos Barria/Reuters]

    Washington, DC – The United States House of Representatives is poised to vote on Tuesday on a resolution that would make it easier for Democrats to sue Trump administration officials and other individuals who refuse to comply with congressional subpoenas.

    The resolution, if passed, would allow for lawsuits against Attorney General William Barr and former White House Counsel Don McGahn. Both have defied congressional subpoenas related to Special Counsel Robert Mueller's inquiry on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. The resolution would also give House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler and the chairs of other House panels the power to take legal action without a full House vote as long as a bipartisan group of House leaders approve the action. 

    Approval of the resolution is all but certain as Democrats control the House 235-198, but it is unclear what  Nadler will do after the vote.

    In a rare compromise on Monday, Nadler said he would hold off on suing Barr for now after the Department of Justice agreed to hand over some key underlying evidence from Mueller's report. Nadler said he would give the Justice Department some time to comply, but "if important information is held back, then we will have no choice but to enforce our subpoena in court and consider other remedies".

    A court case could come quickly for McGahn who has refused to hand over subpoenaed documents and show up for testimony.

    If Democrats do go to court, the process could take as little time as a couple of weeks or as much as several months and may involve appeals to the DC Circuit Court or the US Supreme Court.

    "Given the current political climate and the level of issues that are at stake I suspect that the judges to whom these cases are assigned will move with absolute alacrity," Gene Rossi, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice with a Washington law firm, told Al Jazeera.

    Much of the legal argument is likely to revolve around President Donald Trump's ability to assert "executive privilege" over the information Barr and McGahn would convey in questioning before the House Judiciary Committee. Many lawyers believe the president's claim in these circumstances is weak because Mueller's report has been released publicly, albeit with redactions.

    "Don McGahn, voluntarily and with the president's approval, already met with Robert Mueller in a report that is now public and they are asking him to testify on issues he has already disclosed information on," Rossi said.  

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    "In that case, a privilege can't protect information that has already been voluntarily disclosed. In sum, the executive privilege argument for both of them seems relatively weak."

    The Judiciary Committee has also 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. Both have been told by Trump's White House lawyers not to testify.

    Congressional probes continue

    Tuesday's vote comes as House Democrats attempt to keep a focus on the Mueller report. According to a redacted version of the report, which was released in April, Mueller found that although Trump's campaign had multiple contacts with Russian officials, there was insufficient evidence to establish criminal conspiracy.

    Mueller also outlined 10 instances in which Trump, who has repeatedly called the investigation a "witch-hunt",  attempted to interfere with the investigation. The special counsel, however, declined to make a decision on whether Trump obstructed justice. Barr and former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein subsequently determined Trump had not broken the law.

    On Monday, the House Judiciary Panel heard from John Dean, a former White House counsel whose testimony helped bring down former President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal. 

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    Dean told the House panel that Mueller has provided a "roadmap" for investigating Trump, adding that he sees parallels between the circumstances surrounding Trump and those surrounding Nixon in the 1970s.

    The House Intelligence Committee will continue looking into the Mueller probe on Wednesday with a hearing on the counterintelligence implications of Russian interference in the 2016 elections.

    Democrats remain outraged by the lack of accountability thus far for what happened in the 2016 presidential election and they do not accept Trump's posturing, with Barr's help, that the Mueller report cleared him.

    "There is a major threat to our democracy by external interference in our democracy that was egregiously pursued by the Russians and found to have been pursued by the Russians," Representative Steny Hoyer, the No 2 House Democrat, told reporters in the US Capitol last week.

    "That is very, very serious, and we need to get to the bottom of it and we need to know who participated in that from Russia, from the United States or from both," Hoyer said. 

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    "Clearly, Special Counsel Mueller did not exonerate Mr Trump. Period. He said that. He repeated it. And he pointed out very clearly, if we had had sufficient information to exonerate the president, he would have said so. He did not say so," Hoyer added. "It is our responsibility, therefore, to continue to pursue getting information, which should include … having Mr Mueller testify."

    But many Republicans have criticised the hearings, saying now that the Mueller report is out, it is time to move on.

    "The chairman wants to talk about anything that might sway opinion against the president before the 2020 election," Doug Collins, the top Republican on the judiciary panel, said at Monday's hearing. "That's why these proceedings are moving so slowly: Robert Mueller closed up shop a little too early in the election cycle."

    The investigations come as calls for impeachment proceedings against Trump grow among Democrats. But Democratic leadership has so far resisted those calls, instead urging patience as congressional investigations play out.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News