The House Judiciary Committee, led by Chairman Jerry Nadler, voted along party lines Wednesday to advance a resolution to hold Attorney General Bill Barr in contempt of Congress for not complying with a subpoena for special counsel Robert Mueller's unredacted report, after President Donald Trump asserted executive privilege over Mueller's findings.
The moves marked an escalation in tensions between Democrats and the Trump administration, and set up a likely battle in the courts as Democrats work to review Mueller's conclusions.
“There can be no higher stakes than this attempt to take all power away from Congress and away from the American people. We are in a constitutional crisis,” Nadler said following the committee action.
The resolution, passed after more than six hours of sharp debate, could receive a vote on the House floor in the coming weeks.
"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 press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement.
The resolution would refer the matter to the U.S. Attorney of the District of Columbia, a Trump appointee in the Justice Department unlikely to pursue the matter. It would also pave the way for Democrats to seek enforcement of their subpoena in civil court, which could lead to a prolonged legal fight.
"If allowed to go unchecked, this obstruction means the end of congressional oversight. No person—and certainly not the top law enforcement officer in the country—can be permitted to flout the will of Congress and to defy a valid subpoena," Nadler said as the committee meeting began.
'What's really at stake here is Congress's ability to do its job for the American people," he said.
Republicans on Wednesday argued that providing access to the full report, including sensitive grand jury information, would break the law.
A Justice Department statement, issued just after committee vote, echoed that argument.
“It is deeply disappointing that elected representatives of the American people have chosen to engage in such inappropriate political theatrics," DOJ spokesperson Kerri Kupic said. "Regrettably, Chairman Nadler’s actions have prematurely terminated the accommodation process and forced the President to assert executive privilege to preserve the status quo. No one, including Chairman Nadler and his Committee, will force the Department of Justice to break the law.”
During the committee debate, Republicans accused Democrats of rushing to condemn Barr in an effort to discredit the attorney general as he begins a review of the origins of the Russia investigation supported by the president and some Republicans.
Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., the top Republican on the panel, said Democrats were moving ten times faster to condemn Barr than Republicans did to hold then-Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress over a subpoena for DOJ documents in 2012 related to the Fast and Furious gunrunning operation.
He also claimed Democrats were frustrated with Mueller's findings, and that the special counsel "did not produce the material or conclusions they expected to pave their path to impeaching the president."
While Republicans were quick to mention impeachment in their comments, a few Democrats appeared to reference it as well.
"This hearing is not about the attorney general, it's not about the Mueller report," Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., said. "This is all about impeaching the president. Why won't they just say it?"
Democratic leaders have cautioned members against rushing take up impeachment proceedings against Trump. Most have endorsed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's calls for continued investigation, though others continue are pushing for the House to launch proceedings, in the face of the administration's efforts to stonewall Democrats' requests.
Asked after the vote about the prospects for impeachment, Nadler said it “may not be the best answer in this constitutional crisis.”
Other committee Democrats were not as circumspect.
"If he he wasn’t president he’d be in jail today with Michael Cohen," Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., said of the president Wednesday.
The Justice Department had warned Tuesday night that it would ask Trump to invoke executive privilege over the full Mueller report if Democrats moved forward with contempt proceedings.
"Unfortunately, the Committee has responded to our accommodation efforts by escalating its unreasonable demands and scheduling a committee vote to recommend that the Attorney General be held in contempt of Congress," the Justice Department wrote in a letter to Nadler on Tuesday night.
The Justice Department explained the administration's reasoning in a letter Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd sent to Nadler just as the meeting was getting underway Wednesday morning.
Nadler responded in a statement Tuesday night, saying "in the middle of good faith negotiations with the Attorney General, the Department abruptly announced that it would instead ask President Trump to invoke executive privilege on all of the materials subject to our subpoena. This is, of course, not how executive privilege works. The White House waived these privileges long ago, and the Department seemed open to sharing these materials with us earlier today. The Department’s legal arguments are without credibility, merit, or legal or factual basis.
“Worse, this kind of obstruction is dangerous. The Department’s decision reflects President Trump’s blanket defiance of Congress’s constitutionally mandated duties," Nadler said.
Committee Democrats are sparring with the administration on several fronts.
The White House instructed former White House counsel Don McGahn to ignore a subpoena from the committee for documents related to the special counsel's investigation, according to a letter sent Tuesday from White House counsel Pat Cipollone to McGahn's attorney William Burck. McGahn, who cooperated with Mueller, is cited more than any other witness in the special counsel's final report.
At an event Wednesday morning before the vote, when asked if Barr should be held in contempt, Pelosi said, "They were in the course of accommodations and boom, the administration just said 'we are going to make this executive privilege.' Yes, he should be held in contempt."
It's unclear whether he'll still comply with the committee's subpoena for his testimony on Capitol Hill later this month.