Let the contempt citations fly! True to his word, Attorney General William Barr was a no-show at the House Judiciary Committee this morning, and so was the fully-unredacted Mueller Report despite subpoenas for both. “Every member of this committee, Democrat and Republican alike,” chair Jerrold Nadler intoned, “should understand the consequences when the executive branch tells us that they will simply ignore a lawful subpoena from Congress.”
The consequences might not be as consequential as Nadler argues, but for now he’s planning on moving forward on a contempt citation:
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler: "Late last night the Department of Justice wrote to inform us they will ignore our subpoena for the unredacted Mueller report and the underlying evidence." https://t.co/nSiTDuaUJV pic.twitter.com/7c8EGd6NKi
— ABC News (@ABC) May 2, 2019
House Judiciary Cmte. Chairman Nadler at hearing in which AG Barr declined to testify: "We will have no choice but to move quickly to hold the attorney general in contempt if he stalls or fails to negotiate in good faith." https://t.co/2HWfSVLF6Q pic.twitter.com/lsBBxhrB4Q
— NBC News (@NBCNews) May 2, 2019
“Good faith” in this case is in short supply all around. Nadler wants a full release of grand-jury testimony to all members of Congress, which is not just unreasonable but also violates the law. Furthermore, it’s unnecessary, since Congress has the full summaries written by Robert Mueller himself in hand. Unless they have reason to suspect that Mueller’s hiding information in those redactions that contradict his own conclusions, there’s no point in violating a very good law on grand-jury proceedings. Besides, Congress can — and the House has threatened to — recreate that testimony in their own hearings.
Nadler has a more of an argument on the conflict over the session’s format. After all, it’s Congress’ hearing, not the White House’s. However, Barr isn’t entirely out of line either by asking for the courtesy of not being treated like a suspect in an investigation by refraining from having staff counsel grill him as part of the process. His appearance should be considered a mutual courtesy rather than a hauling of a defendant into the dock, and the AG does have some leverage for those types of negotiations.
Ranking member Doug Collins blamed Democrats for forcing the issue, declaring that this outcome is precisely what they intended. “They want it to look like an impeachment hearing,” Collins declared, “because they won’t bring impeachment proceedings”:
Rep. Doug Collins said "the reason Bill Barr is not here today is because Democrats decided they did not want him here," adding the House Judiciary Committee isn't getting the chance to hear from Barr "because the stunt and the circus continues" https://t.co/3mq7FTP7vY pic.twitter.com/etzPJ73utw
— POLITICO (@politico) May 2, 2019
Nadler has broadcast his desire for impeachment-by-proxy hearings for months now, quite literally on every news broadcast he can access. That’s why he wants staff counsel to question Barr, a somewhat unusual although not unprecedented maneuver. Republicans used it in the Senate Judiciary Committee to question Christine Blasey Ford in the second Brett Kavanaugh hearing, mainly to avoid creating a politically explosive sound bite between the Republican men on the panel and the woman testifying. That stunt was secondary to the larger stunt that was the hearing itself.
Nadler can now get a vote on contempt for Barr for failing to honor both subpoenas. And then what? Barr may well take note of the wreckage of Eric Holder’s contempt citation for hiding behind a bogus executive privilege claim on Operation Fast & Furious, which made such a hash of his life that he [checks records] served several more years as AG and then contemplated a run for the presidency.
Barr isn’t exactly quaking in his boots. The nasty secret on Capitol Hill, Roll Call reports, is that congressional subpoenas just ain’t like they used to be:
As Donald Trump vows to fight every congressional subpoena issued by House committees investigating his presidency and personal affairs, Democratic lawmakers and strategists are coming to grips with a new reality in which the subpoena might be obsolete.
“At this point, it’s just a piece of paper,” a former senior congressional investigative aide said. “It’s useless.” …
Some have proposed deploying an arcane measure called “inherent contempt” to fine or even jail Trump administration officials who defy subpoenas. Democratic House leadership hasn’t entirely ruled that out, though the optics of the House sergeant-at-arms going to the homes of Trump advisers, putting them in handcuffs and marching them to holding cells in the Capitol isn’t very palatable for some Democrats.
That would dramatically escalate the actual problem, which is maximalist politics and Congress’ habit of punting to the executive rather than casting tough votes. President Pen and Phone played a role here, too:
Congress has increasingly resorted to supplying federal appropriations through stopgap continuing resolutions and ceded some power to the White House to govern through executive action. The president’s incentives to cooperate with Congress’ requests — and its subpoenas — have diminished along with those changes.
On top of that crumbling institutional foundation sits Trump, a uniquely pugnacious president whose administration and personal and business finances are under intense scrutiny from a Democrat-controlled House, eager to unearth any malfeasance.
The bottom line is that drawing lines in the sand doesn’t lead to more cooperation when both sides have a lot of power to make the other miserable. At some point, it leads to warfare. House Democrats have openly bragged about dragging Trump from office, so it’s not exactly a surprise that administration officials like Barr don’t trust Nadler to avoid using them as leverage to accomplish that task.