Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin addresses a conference on financial technology in Arlington last month. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Opinion writer

Attorney General William P. Barr is scrambling to head off a House vote holding him in contempt, or at least lay down a factual record to try to persuade a court that a contempt citation should not be enforced. With a vote to hold Barr in contempt scheduled for Wednesday, the Justice Department requested a meeting, prompting House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) to issue a statement. “I am pleased that the Department of Justice has agreed to meet with my staff [Tuesday] — and not Wednesday afternoon, as originally proposed by DOJ,” the letter began. “It remains vital that the Committee obtain access to the full, unredacted [Mueller] report and the underlying materials. At the moment, our plans to consider holding Attorney General Barr accountable for his failure to comply with our subpoena still stand.”

At issue is also Barr’s refusal to appear for questioning by the committee’s counsel, a remarkable if unintended signal that he recognizes the flimflam, evasion and nonresponsiveness he used to avoid answering Senate Judiciary Committee members’ questions last week will not work with a skilled attorney’s staccato questions and exacting follow-ups.

If the committee and House do vote to hold the attorney general in contempt, it is not clear what the next step might be. The attorney general would direct the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia not to enforce the contempt finding in court. The House could proceed with a civil case to enjoin and fine Barr. The most appropriate response, however, to an attorney general who has dissembled about the Mueller report, refused to produce the report for Congress and defied a duly passed contempt citation would be impeachment.

Having utterly failed to uphold his oath and chosen to become President Trump’s personal defense counsel, Barr has damaged his own reputation and undermined his department’s reputation and the rule of law. Impeachment of a Cabinet secretary (the first since Reconstruction) would be a fitting capstone to a career that will be defined by Barr’s rabid partisanship and disdain for the Constitution.

And he might not be alone. The Post reports:

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Monday told House Democrats he would not furnish President Trump’s tax returns despite their legal request, the latest move by Trump administration officials to shield the president from congressional investigations.

Mnuchin, in a letter to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.), said he had consulted with the Justice Department and that they had concluded that it would not be lawful for the Trump administration to turn over the tax returns because of potential violations of privacy.

Mnuchin argues that the request must serve a legitimate purpose, but the statute requires no such showing. Moreover, it is not up to the president to decide what is a legitimate purpose.

Mnuchin’s excuses are pathetic. The statute plainly states the treasury secretary “shall” turn over a tax return upon request by the House Ways and Means Committee chairman. All tax returns have private information, but Congress previously decided by statute that concerns about privacy are secondary to the House’s oversight responsibilities. Here, Mnuchin’s obstruction is designed simply to protect Trump from embarrassment and conceal potential conflicts of interest and possible improper receipt of foreign emoluments.

As with Barr, the House should proceed along two tracks. It should hold Mnuchin in contempt and proceed with civil litigation when the Justice Department refuses to enforce the contempt finding in court. Mnuchin’s impeachment hearings should also proceed.

The contempt findings and impeachment proceedings against two Cabinet officials will serve several purposes. The House will underscore the administration’s utter lawlessness and the degree to which Trump has corrupted public functions for private purposes. It will provide a forum to educate the American people about Trump’s underlying misconduct (e.g. receipt of foreign emoluments, obstruction of justice in the Mueller probe). And perhaps most important it will serve as a deterrent for other Cabinet officials in this and future administrations: If you join a lawless administration and work to enable and defend it, you will suffer severe consequences, including career destruction. It’s time to remind public servants that they are there to serve the public.

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