Democrats reach deal to get some Mueller evidence
WASHINGTON — House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler said the Justice Department has agreed to begin turning over some information the panel subpoenaed related to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
“The department will share the first of these documents with us later today,” said Nadler, a New York Democrat, in a statement Monday. He added that all members of the committee would be able to view the materials. “These documents will allow us to perform our constitutional duties and decide how to respond to the allegations laid out against the president by the special counsel.”
The committee and Attorney General William Barr have been locked in a fight over access for Congress to redacted portions of Mueller’s report, as well as the underlying evidence. Nadler’s announcement comes a day before the House plans to vote on a resolution authorizing Nadler and his committee to initiate civil legal action against Barr for his refusal to turn over Mueller report-related material.
The deal with the Justice Department won’t forestall the Tuesday vote, Nadler said in remarks at the opening of a committee hearing. “Our arrangement with the department does not extend to the full scope of our request for the full Mueller report and its underlying materials, including grand jury information, nor does it extend to our demand that Don McGahn, a key fact witness, testify before this committee.”
The resolution drafted by House Democrats would give the Judiciary Committee authority to pursue civil legal action and judgments against Barr and former White House counsel McGahn for defying congressional demands for documents and testimony under White House direction.
Nadler said that if the department “proceeds in good faith and we are able to obtain everything that we need, then there will be no need to take further steps.” But if important information is held back, he added, “then we will have no choice but to enforce our subpoena in court and consider other remedies.”
While Nadler has blamed the Justice Department for refusing to negotiate over material to release, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said he was glad that Nadler “has finally” met the Justice Department at the negotiating table. He said the “good-faith provision” from the administration to turn over the documents “debunks” claims the White House is stalling Congress.
“In light of today’s agreement from the Justice Department, it’s logical to ask: Is the chairman prepared to rescind his baseless recommendation to hold the attorney general in contempt, or do House Democrats still plan to green-light lawsuits against the attorney general and former White House counsel tomorrow?”
The developments came as Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top House Democrats work to counter President Trump’s defiance of congressional investigations by imposing consequences for ignoring House subpoenas and other demands.
Despite pressure from inside their caucus to open a formal presidential impeachment inquiry, they sought to maintain a middle ground with a vote on the House floor to further empower committee oversight of Trump and his administration.
The planned resolution stops short of finding Barr and McGahn in contempt of Congress, a move the House Judiciary Committee approved for Barr.
“We are pleased the committee has agreed to set aside its contempt resolution and is returning to the traditional accommodation process,” Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement.
The House resolution would give Nadler and a number of other chairmen the power to issue contempt citations — with approval of Pelosi and a couple of her top House lieutenants — without needing a vote of the full House.
House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings said he’ll ask his committee Wednesday to authorize both criminal and civil contempt actions against Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who is embroiled in a dispute with the panel over the origins of a decision to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census.
“I did not want this to happen,” said Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, in a statement. “I asked Secretary Ross to meet with me personally to try to resolve this impasse, but he refused. Both Secretary Ross and Attorney General Barr are refusing to comply with duly authorized subpoenas from Congress.”
The resolution to be taken up by the House “reflects the middle of the caucus, who appear to have grown frustrated over the president’s obstruction,” said Joshua Huder, a senior fellow with the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. “Regardless of its political meaning, it’s a step up in the fight between Congress and the president.”
Confronted with Trump’s vow to resist all cooperation with House investigations—“we’re fighting all the subpoenas,” he said in April — Democrats are also moving on other fronts to sharpen their case against the president.
That started with a House Judiciary hearing Monday labeled “Lessons from the Mueller Report: Presidential Obstruction and Other Crimes.” Lacking any administration witnesses, the committee heard from critics including John Dean, who was President Richard Nixon’s White House counsel and gave crucial testimony when the House weighed impeaching him.
Dean has become an outspoken critic of Trump. “Can’t believe they are bringing in John Dean, the disgraced Nixon White House Counsel who is a paid CNN contributor,” Trump tweeted Monday even as the hearing with Dean got underway.
“In many ways the Mueller report is to President Trump what the so-called Watergate “Road Map” (officially titled ‘Grand Jury Report and Recommendation Concerning Transmission of Evidence to the House of Representatives’) was to President Richard Nixon,” Dean said in his prepared testimony. “Stated a bit differently, special counsel Mueller has provided this committee a road map.”
Republican Collins scoffed that the committee was reliving faded Watergate memories. “This committee is hearing from the ’70s, and they want their star witness back,” he said of Dean.
The new round of House hearings could be a start to building a case for “high crimes and misdemeanors” — the constitutional standard for impeachment — even as Pelosi continues to stiff-arm calls from increasing number of her House Democratic colleagues for a formal impeachment inquiry. That’s included nudging in private from Nadler.
Barr had resisted producing an un-redacted version of Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election and the underlying evidence. McGahn has refused to produce documents or appear before the Judiciary panel to provide testimony concerning Trump’s alleged obstruction of justice. The White House asked both men not to comply with the congressional subpoenas.
The speaker’s middle-ground approach giving more power to committee chairmen also may provide protection — at least for now — to some House Democrats in districts that were carried by Trump in 2016, according to Samuel Everett Dewey, a former congressional lawyer who led investigations in key committees in both the House and Senate.
“This will completely shield them,” said Dewey, who is now with the law firm McDermott Will & Emery.
But rushing to launch swifter court action to stop Trump’s delaying tactics carries risks — including that the House might lose some of these cases. And there’s no guarantee that getting to court faster means the case will be resolved swiftly. It took several years to get a court ruling in a 2012 contempt of Congress action against one of former President Barack Obama’s attorneys general, Eric Holder, over issues of executive privilege.
There have been swift initial successes for House legal efforts in federal court orders to Mazars USA, Deutsche Bank AG and Capital One Financial Corp. to produce financial records. But Dewey, the former congressional lawyer, said House moves toward fast action could backfire.
“The more you speed up and strip process, the more litigation risk you run,” he said.