William Barr Cited for Contempt of Congress As Democrat Asks How Trump Can Be Impeached Without Documents

William Barr held in contempt by House Judiciary Committee
Attorney General William Barr testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee, in Washington, D.C., on May 1. Barr, the nation’s top law enforcement official, was cited for contempt of Congress Wednesday by the House Judiciary Committee for defying a subpoena to produce the unredacted Mueller report and its underlying evidence. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Attorney General William Barr, the nation's top law enforcement official, was cited for contempt of Congress Wednesday by the House Judiciary Committee for defying a subpoena to produce the unredacted Mueller report and its underlying evidence, shortly after the White House asserted executive privilege over such documents.

The moves by the committee and the White House further escalated tensions and the number of legal battles likely to ensue between the executive and legislative branches.

The committee voted 24-16 along party lines in a contempt citation vote, which will now move to the full House for approval, assuming House leadership will put the measure up for a vote. Only one other attorney general, Eric Holder under President Barack Obama, has been held in contempt of Congress in the history of the United States.

"We've talked for a long time about approaching a constitutional crisis," said House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat, following the vote. "We are now in it. We are now in a constitutional crisis."

He continued: "This was a very grave and momentus step that we were forced to take today. We did not relish doing this, but we have no choice. Attorney General Barr has proved himself to be a personal attorney for President Trump rather than the attorney general of the United States by misleading the public as to the contents of the Mueller report twice [and] by not being truthful with Congress."

Democrats surged forward to begin the formal contempt process, despite the Justice Department warning Nadler Tuesday night after negotiations broke down that they planned to request the White House to assert executive privilege over the unredacted report and underlying evidence—unless the committee scrapped the vote.

The Justice Department informed Congress just prior to the contempt vote that Trump had "asserted executive privilege over the entirety of the subpoenaed materials," a move that Barr also requested be taken in a personal letter to Trump.

Due to Nadler's "blatant abuse of power, and at the attorney general's request," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters, "the president has no other option than to make a protective assertion of executive privilege."

Nadler and other Democrats argue the White House relinquished executive privilege "long ago" due to the countless documents handed over and witnesses who've testified from the administration throughout Mueller's 22-month-long investigation into Russian election meddling.

Judiciary members spent much of the more than six-hour hearing before the contempt vote lobbing insults at each other, Mueller and the president, sprinkling in some debate on the law and legal precedent.

Democrats questioned what laid beneath the redacted portions of the report that could potentially implicate the president in further wrongdoing, on top of the various attempts by Trump to obstruct or fire Mueller. They argued such documents were well within Congress' right to conduct oversight, despite the president "stonewalling" their attempts.

Nadler accused the White House and Justice Department of being in collusion to "cover up" "misdeeds" committed by Trump, amounting to a "constitutional crisis."

"There can be no higher stakes than this attempt to arrogate all power to the executive branch," said Nadler, whose committee has the power to draft articles of impeachment.

Democratic Representative Sheila Jackson Lee said Trump's executive privilege assertion "seeks to take a wrecking ball to the Constitution" and fellow Democrat Hank Johnson questioned how the House could "impeach without getting the documents?"

Jerrold Nadler, Judiciary Committee holds William Barr in contempt
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, with gavel, presides over a markup hearing during which members could vote to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress for not providing an unredacted copy of special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s report, in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill, on May 8. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Republicans, meanwhile, questioned their counterparts' motives, claiming that rather than Democrats wanting to seek more information, they are only motivated by one aspect: impeachment. Barr would have to break the law in order to comply with a subpoena for the unredacted report and its millions of pages of underlying evidence due to current law and Justice Department guidelines, they said.

Representative Doug Collins, the top Republican on the committee, said "Democrats are angry" because Mueller's report "did not produce the material or conclusions they expected to pave their path to impeaching the president" and did not make a determination on obstruction.

"The constitutional crisis is a committee that is asking the attorney general for things he cannot give... asking to not only write the law, but enforce the law," Collins said after the vote. "[Democrats] hate this president and they want to keep the circus going and make the American people believe they're actually doing impeachment when they're not."

Republican Jim Jordan said the Democrats' contempt proceeding was "all about trying to destroy Bill Barr" because they are "nervous he's going to get to the bottom of everything." Republican Matt Gaetz, citing quotes from Johnson, claimed "This is all about impeaching the president."

One Republican did say that if Congress were not so prone to leaks, and if Nadler were not seeking to obtain grand jury material, he would support Democrats' efforts to obtain the full report and hold Barr accountable.

"If this place weren't as leaky as a sieve, I would not be opposed to what the chairman is doing because I've stood up for oversight my entire career," Representative Jim Sensenbrenner said. "But it is leaky as a sieve, and I think what we're doing here is forcing the attorney general to break the law, place in jeopardy innocent people who are not involved in any of the things Mr. Mueller ended up investigating and shaming ourselves in the process."

This story has been updated to include additional comments made by Representatives Jerrold Nadler and Doug Collins after the contempt citation vote.