WASHINGTON – The House Judiciary Committee voting to hold Attorney General Bill Barr in contempt of Congress on Wednesday is the first step of many Democrats are willing to take as they continue investigating the Trump administration.
Democrats say they have been pushed to consider drastic measures, even impeachment and jailing individuals, in light of President Donald Trump’s unwillingness to cooperate with congressional investigations and attempting to shut down requests for everything from his tax returns to former and current aides appearing before Congress to answer questions.
But now, Democrats are offering a glimpse at their roadmap to navigating these barriers and where this leaves the House when it comes to both their investigations and the possibility of impeaching the president.
“There is a big picture here,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Wednesday morning. “And the big picture is our democracy, our Constitution, the ability of the American people to know what its executive department is doing. That’s the big picture and we’re gonna focus on that big picture.”
The debate over whether Barr should be held in contempt moves to the House for a full vote. Hoyer said it has not been decided whether that vote will happen before Friday.
Strategy and options to coerce cooperation
While Wednesday’s vote was an escalation of tensions between the executive and legislative branch, it could just be the start of a number of contempt proceedings.
Hoyer said Wednesday morning that Democrats were not looking at each denial as individual items. He said the party was viewing it in a “holistic” way, working with each of the six committees investigating Trump and hoping to display “the picture of, perhaps, the greatest cover-up of any president in American history.”
Barr, he said, was just was one piece of that picture.
“You ask our strategy,” Hoyer told reporters when asked about Barr and next steps in the House, “It’s the cover-up that we’re gonna be focused on and there will be individual items, which will be proof of that cover-up.”
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Moving forward, Democrats said there were a number of options on the table.
House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said Wednesday “really raises the stakes and makes a constitutional crisis much more likely.” He outlined several options that could be considered:
Withholding pay to those who don’t comply. Congress is tasked with overseeing and allocating money for federal agencies and Schiff said Wednesday that lawmakers might be forced to look at the budget process in order to force compliance by some federal agencies. On Tuesday, House Oversight Committee Chairmen Elijah Cummings threatened to withhold salaries of those at the Interior Department who have blocked interviews with employees about Secretary David Bernhardt.
Reviving inherent contempt. This process, which hasn’t been used since the 1930s, basically allows Congress to jail an individual if that person does not comply with a congressional request. Congress deploys its Sergeant-At-Arms to take the person into custody until the person complies or that particular Congress ends. It’s one of three types of contempt proceedings Congress can elect to use. The others are criminal and civil.
Impeachment. While Democrats have been talking about impeachment for weeks, the Trump administration’s refusal to cooperate on oversight investigation has reinvigorated these discussions. “The more the president acts in an anti-Constitutional fashion, the more likely we have a Constitutional collision,” Schiff said.
The legal fight just beginning
The last time Congress held someone in contempt was in 2014 after IRS official Lois Lerner invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination during a congressional hearing. Congress voted in May of that year to charge Lerner with criminal contempt.
A year later, the Justice Department declined to file any charges against Lerner.
A similar episode played out when Congress voted in June 2012 to charge then-Attorney General Eric Holder with criminal contempt, which the Justice Department also declined to prosecute. The contempt charge led to a drawn-out lawsuit where Congress has spent years attempting to gain access to documents.
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Democrats on Wednesday, though, were not scared off by a lengthy court fight, arguing that their battle was to prevent the Trump administration from setting a precedent that agencies, individuals and future presidents can refuse congressional requests.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said she hoped today’s contempt vote served as a message to the administration that Democrats were “not ceasing, not stopping” and only going to continue to dig in their heels in.
Lee, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said that if the president wanted to continue to deny their requests, “we want him to say this over and over again,” noting that it would put it on display for those across the U.S.
“The American people need to understand that this comes right to their front door, that if the president can block the Congress from finding out the truth and serving the American people and breaching the Constitution, then we are not the democracy we say we are,” she added.
Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., chair of the Democratic Policy & Communications Committee and a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said the Trump administration was stonewalling Congress and the number of blockades was adding up.
“We have a number of tools available to us to try to compel that compliance,” he warned. “But I do think as people see the president and members and administration continuing this effort to obstruct the investigation, to impede the fact-finding process, to prevent us from getting to the truth, the sentiment that this is unacceptable continues to grow.”
Contributing: Eliza Collins
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