WASHINGTON — The House voted Tuesday to authorize the Judiciary Committee to go to court to enforce two subpoenas related to Robert Mueller’s inquiry — threatening to open a new legal front in the Democrats’ efforts to investigate President Donald Trump and his administration.
The resolution, which passed along party lines, 229-191, grants the Judiciary Committee the power to petition a federal judge to force Attorney General William Barr and former White House counsel Don McGahn to comply with congressional subpoenas that they have completely or partly defied.
But it also empowers other House committees to move more quickly to court in future disputes — authorities that could quickly be put to the test. The House Oversight and Reform Committee, for instance, is expected to vote Wednesday to recommend separate contempt of Congress citations against Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross over that panel’s investigation into the administration’s efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.
“We’re here in a fight for the soul of our democracy, and we will use every single tool that is available to us to hold this administration accountable for its actions and make sure the government is working effectively and efficiently for all the people,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., the oversight panel’s chairman, told reporters after the vote.
Despite earlier threats and a recommendation from the Judiciary Committee, Democrats stopped short of formally holding Barr or McGahn in contempt of Congress for now, forgoing an accusation of a crime in favor of what they hope is continued leverage to force cooperation. The decision appears to be based at least in part on new signs of compromise from the Justice Department, which on Monday agreed after weeks of hostilities to begin sharing key evidence collected in Mueller’s obstruction of justice investigation.
The committee had demanded that Barr and the Justice Department hand over the full text of the special counsel’s report and the evidence underlying it, and that McGahn testify in public and produce evidence that he had given Mueller.
Neither the Justice Department nor lawyers for McGahn immediately commented on the vote.
House Democratic leaders called the vote a vital step in their methodical march to expose Trump’s behavior and pressure his administration to cooperate with congressional oversight requests. They also clearly saw it as a means of holding off calls within their ranks to quickly move to impeach the president, arguing that it showed there were other ways of using their power to hold him accountable.
“The responsibility the speaker and I have is to try to move ahead in a measured, focused, effective way to garner the information that the American people need to make determinations, and for us to make determinations, and I think we’re doing that,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the House majority leader.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, addressing lawmakers on the House floor shortly before the vote, framed the court authorizations as a step toward upholding the principle that Congress was “constitutionally obligated and legally entitled to access and review materials from the executive branch.”
If they follow through in filing the suits, Democrats will be effectively calling on a third branch of government, the federal judiciary, to settle a dispute between the legislative and executive branches over Congress’ right to conduct investigations and the extent of the president’s authority to shield evidence from lawmakers. The answer could have significant implications not just for Trump, but for oversight of the executive branch for decades to come.
But there is no guarantee the courts will give them a useful outcome — at least not quickly. Past cases have stretched on for months or even years, a fact that could become problematic for Pelosi and her team as they seek to keep calls for impeachment at bay.
It was not immediately clear how quickly Democrats would file a suit against McGahn, a key figure in Mueller’s report, or if they would seek court enforcement against Barr at all. The Judiciary Committee chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., told reporters Tuesday that the House would not dawdle but that timing would depend on the House general counsel who represents lawmakers in court. The counsel, Doug Letter, will address Democrats on Wednesday morning in a closed meeting.
“We’re not going to go to court with the attorney general so long as in good faith they do what they have agreed to do,” Nadler said after the vote.
Tuesday’s resolution also gives Nadler the authority to petition a federal judge for access to secretive grand jury material amassed in the course of Mueller’s investigation. Such information rarely becomes public, but Nadler has made the case that his committee needs access to it to determine whether impeachment is warranted. His efforts to persuade the Justice Department to join him in making the request were rebuffed.
The dispute in the Oversight Committee could soon put to a test yet another provision of Tuesday’s resolution, allowing committees to go straight to court to enforce subpoenas without a full House vote as long as they have the blessing of leadership.
Wednesday’s contempt vote stems from an investigation into why the Trump administration is trying to add a question about citizenship to the census — which Democrats fear would suppress population counts in liberal-leaning areas ahead of reapportioning congressional seats.
This spring, Barr instructed a subordinate involved in the census question to defy a subpoena requiring him to appear for a deposition. He cited a House rule preventing a Justice Department lawyer from accompanying the witness.
In a letter on Tuesday to Cummings, the Trump administration said Trump would probably invoke executive privilege if the panel did not back down. It appended a newly disclosed memo by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel fleshing out the argument that the subpoena for testimony was invalid because it encroached on Trump’s executive powers.
Despite Democratic calls for them to put their loyalty to the House over party, Republicans unanimously opposed Tuesday’s authorization of legal action. They said Democrats bent on impeachment were neglecting more pressing policy issues, like the migrants who are overwhelming government resources at the southwestern border.
“They are so tangled up in their efforts to impeach the president, in the investigations, in the battles going on within their own caucus, that they seem incapable of actually doing anything the American people elected us to come here and do,” said Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 House Republican.