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House Democrats are struggling to find a way to make the Trump administration pay for refusing to cooperate with their investigations. Reported the Hill.
Democrats want to pursue aggressive oversight of Trump instead of impeachment, but the president’s stone wall hasn’t left them many openings. And the frustrations are showing.
The House Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress for not complying with subpoenas for documents related to special counsel Robert Mueller’s report.
After the Treasury Department refused to hand over Trump’s tax returns this week, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) said the fight will likely go straight to the courts.
“They don’t seem to be responding to a lot of subpoenas around here,” said Neal, who plans to meet with House counsel on Thursday to discuss his options. “I did say this was going to end up in the courts. And that’s where it’s heading.”
Democrats have limited options for punishing the Trump administration.
House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) this week threatened to withhold the salaries of Interior and Commerce department officials who block interviews with his panel.
Some Democrats also suggested they could invoke what’s called “inherent contempt,” which allows Congress to detain a person held in contempt until the demands are met. And there’s impeachment of administration officials or Trump himself.
Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), a Judiciary Committee member who also leads House Democrats’ messaging arm, said “all that stuff” will be on the table if there are no other options, though he added, “We’re not anywhere near that yet.”
“I think we’re going to try to litigate this in an expedited fashion,” he said. “But we’re not going to allow the president and his administration to stonewall sufficiently for the sole purpose of running out the clock so they can avoid accountability and avoid us getting to the full truth.”
Democrats acknowledge that the blanket stonewalling from the Trump administration could itself potentially be an impeachable offense. They point to the third article of impeachment against former President Nixon, which charged a failure to comply with congressional subpoenas related to the Watergate investigation.
“I do think that there is ongoing obstruction of justice. It’s not something that’s just of the past. It’s something that is happening right now as the president refuses to allow us to see the results or hear from the witnesses that were part of the Mueller investigation,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a Judiciary Committee member and leading progressive.
“I think, clearly, the more the administration refuses and leaves us with very few options, we’ll keep everything on the table.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who opposes a rush to impeachment, said Trump is nevertheless making a case for the process. She suggested earlier this week that Trump is “goading” Democrats into impeachment to rally his base. “Every single day the president is making a case — he’s becoming self-impeachable, in terms of some of the things he’s doing,” Pelosi said during a public interview with The Washington Post on Wednesday.
Passage of a contempt resolution against Barr won’t address the question of how to secure information from the administration, but Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said it would raise the stakes.
“We have an obligation, I think, to proceed in a cautious, deliberate and forceful fashion. That is exactly what we are doing by moving to hold the attorney general in contempt,” he said.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) acknowledged that taking their case to the courts could lead to months of litigation, drawing the debate well into the 2020 presidential race. But ensuring the accountability of the executive branch, he argued, is worth the wait.
“If it takes some time, so be it. We would hope that it would not take some time, and my recommendation is we ask the courts — if in fact we take court action — to accelerate whatever action is necessary in the defense of democracy. But we’re going to proceed as the law provides us the opportunity to proceed.”
Polling suggests some risks for Democrats.
A NPR–PBS NewsHour–Marist poll released last week found that 48 percent of Americans think Democrats in Congress should keep holding hearings to further investigate the findings in Mueller’s report, while 46 percent think the investigations should end.
An NBC News–Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday found that 48 percent believe Congress shouldn’t hold impeachment hearings, while 32 percent think Congress should keep investigating to see if there is enough evidence to hold impeaching hearings in the future. Just 17 percent think there’s enough evidence for Congress to start impeachment hearings now.
The most recent instances of Congress voting to hold an administration official in contempt offered limited results.
During George W. Bush’s presidency, the Democratic-controlled House voted in February 2008 to hold White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten and White House counsel Harriet Miers in contempt over the terminations of U.S. attorneys. More than a year later and after Bush left office, a deal was reached for Miers to testify at a closed hearing.
In 2012, House Republicans voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt after the Obama administration exercised executive privilege over documents related to the “Fast and Furious” gun-tracking operation. A federal judge ruled two years later that the Justice Department, which declined to prosecute Holder, had to provide Congress with documents related to the scandal. But that didn’t include all of the documents requested by the Oversight and Reform Committee.
House Republicans also voted in 2014 to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt for invoking the Fifth Amendment in declining to answer questions before the House Oversight and Reform Committee over the targeting of conservative groups over their tax-exempt status. But the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia notified the House in 2015 that Lerner didn’t warrant prosecution.
Democrats said they hoped the across-the-board defiance from the Trump administration would boost their case in the courts.
“What we have is something completely different here. It is a sweeping categorical defiance of the role of Congress,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a Judiciary Committee member and former constitutional law professor. “And that just can’t stand, so we’re hoping that the courts are going to take our side and say that the people of the United States have the right to this information.”