United States Democratic-led House panel on Wednesday approved a measure to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt for refusing to hand over an unredacted copy of the Mueller report on Russian election interference.
The House’s move coincided with President Donald Trump invoking the legal principle of executive privilege to block its disclosure.
Throwing down another challenge to Trump, the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee voted to recommend that the full House cite Barr, the top U.S. law enforcement official and a Trump appointee, for contempt of Congress after he defied its subpoena for the complete report and underlying evidence.
The confrontation escalated a constitutional clash between the Democratic-controlled House and Republican president over congressional powers to investigate him, his administration, his family and his business interests.
In a step likely to trigger a high-stakes court battle, with fines and possible imprisonment at stake for Barr, the committee approved the recommendation on a party-line 24-16 vote, with Democrats in favour and Republicans opposed.
The vote came hours after the White House took its own provocative step, asserting executive privilege to block the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s full report on Russian actions to boost Trump’s candidacy in the 2016 U.S. election and related evidence such as investigative interviews.
Executive privilege is only rarely invoked by U.S. presidents to keep other branches of government from getting access to certain internal executive branch information. Trump had not previously taken such a step in his showdown with Congress.
House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler said the White House was misapplying executive privilege in “a clear escalation in the Trump administration’s blanket defiance of Congress’s constitutionally mandated duties,” adding that neither Barr nor Trump should be permitted to be “above the law.”
The White House said 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,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.
In a letter to Nadler, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd said Barr could not comply with the subpoena “without violating the law, court rules, and court orders, and without threatening the independence of the Department of Justice’s prosecutorial functions.”
Trump, seeking re-election in 2020, is stonewalling numerous probes by House Democrats, ranging from Mueller’s inquiry to matters such as Trump’s tax returns and past financial records.