A House panel voted Wednesday to authorize subpoenas to obtain special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s full report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, laying down a marker in a constitutional power struggle that could end up in the courts.
The House Judiciary Committee voted 24 to 17 along party lines to authorize its chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), to subpoena the report and underlying documents of Mueller’s probe from Attorney General William P. Barr.
The panel, which has jurisdiction over impeachment, also voted to subpoena five former White House officials it believes may have received documents relevant to the special counsel’s probe.
“This committee has a job to do,” Nadler said. “The Constitution charges Congress with holding the president accountable for alleged official misconduct. That job requires us to evaluate the evidence for ourselves — not the attorney general’s summary, not a substantially redacted synopsis, but the full report and the underlying evidence.”
The much-anticipated move to compel the Justice Department to release the report comes one day after Barr missed a House-imposed deadline to turn over the nearly 400-page document. Barr told lawmakers last week that although he could not meet their Tuesday deadline, he promised to deliver a redacted version of Mueller’s findings by mid-April, if not sooner.
But Democrats, who are leaving for a two-week congressional recess next week, have made clear that redactions are unacceptable and have sought to give Nadler the tools needed to respond at any moment.
Nadler told reporters after Wednesday’s vote that he will hold off on serving Barr with a subpoena, seeking to first negotiate with him for the full range of Mueller’s documents. The Democrat would not specify, however, how long he would wait.
“We’re going to work with the attorney general for a short period of time in a hope that he will reveal to us the entire Mueller report and will go to court to get permission to get the [grand jury] material,” Nadler said, referring to interviews and documents presented during the proceedings throughout the investigation. “But if that doesn’t work out, in a very short order we will issue subpoenas.”
After reviewing the report, Barr sent a four-page letter to Congress on March 24, saying Mueller “did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”
Mueller also made no determination about whether President Trump attempted to obstruct justice during the inquiry, arguing that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,” according to Barr’s summary.
That has not stopped Trump and his GOP allies from claiming it does — even as Democrats counter that Barr, a Trump appointee, is hardly a neutral observer and is protecting the president.
On Monday, Trump asserted on Twitter that “no matter what information is given to the crazed Democrats from the No Collusion Mueller Report, it will never be good enough.” Republicans argued during Wednesday’s hearing that Democrats simply want to embarrass or impeach Trump.
“My friends across the dais are eager for headlines, so they’re issuing subpoenas . . . despite the fact the special counsel spent nearly two years examining exactly what House Democrats are fishing for here,” said Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.), the top Republican on the committee.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), an outspoken Trump ally, asked: “Why are we here? Seems to me we’re here because the Mueller report isn’t what the Democrats wanted it to be . . . just the opposite.”
Democrats objected, reminding Jordan that neither they nor the GOP has seen a single page of the Mueller report.
However, House Democrats in recent days have sought to shift the focus away from their investigations of the president, especially talk of impeachment. Some Democrats worry the nationwide focus on their efforts probing Trump is drowning out their legislative message, which they deem vital to maintaining their majority in 2020 and defeating Trump.
Still, party leaders have argued that Barr — who personally determined there was not sufficient evidence to establish obstruction, absent a Mueller recommendation on the matter — could have misrepresented Mueller’s findings and that Democrats need to review the report themselves.
“We do not need your interpretation. Show us the report,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said last week, calling Barr’s handling of the matter “condescending” and “arrogant.”
Nadler echoed that sentiment Wednesday: “We are not willing to let the attorney general . . . substitute his judgment for ours.”
The Judiciary Committee on Wednesday also approved subpoenas for five former White House aides: former White House counsel Donald McGahn; former chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon; former communications director Hope Hicks; former chief of staff Reince Priebus; and Ann Donaldson, McGahn’s former chief of staff.
The five were among 81 individuals and entities Nadler sent document requests to last month as part of his investigation into whether Trump abused power, obstructed justice or engaged in public corruption.
The fight over the Mueller report is expected to land in the courts. Senior Justice Department officials have expressed opposition to releasing information that could damage an individual who is not charged with a crime. But when it comes to the president, Democrats argue, Barr has an obligation to make the report public, and they have said they will sue for the entire document if Barr does not comply.
The House voted 420 to 0 last month to urge Barr to release the report. But since then, House Republicans — particularly on the Judiciary Committee — have deferred to Barr, arguing that he would make the best legal decision about what to make public.
Barr and Justice Department officials are working behind the scenes to redact grand-jury information, classified material, details related to ongoing prosecutions and “information that may unduly infringe on the personal privacy and reputational interests of peripheral third parties,” according to Nadler.
But Democrats have argued that Congress deserves to see all the information, citing as precedent former independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s delivery to Congress of his full, unredacted report on President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. The Starr report in 1998 was complete with grand-jury testimony.
Nadler at one point during the committee session held up two massive books from Starr’s investigation, noting he gave Congress “boxes and boxes” of such information.
“The department is wrong to try to withhold that information from this committee,” Nadler said. “Congress is entitled to all of the evidence.”
Collins challenged Nadler’s logic, mocking his use of props by holding up his own makeshift display — two water bottles, one empty, one full — to argue Nadler is comparing apples and oranges.
Starr, Collins argued, was appointed under a different law and made recommendations on impeachment.
“I’m glad we’re using props today, because the chairman is wanting you to look at one thing when the reality is another thing,” Collins said. “It doesn’t work! They’re not the same!”
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) argued that previous special counsels and prosecutors who handed over grand-jury information to Congress received permission from the courts to release such sensitive material.
Sensenbrenner, who said he would be “happy to be a co-plaintiff” in a court motion to release the full report, encouraged Nadler to hold off on his subpoena and go to a judge. “We ought to do what we need to do first,” he said, “. . . and that’s go to court.”
Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.) countered that in those circumstances, the special counsel or special prosecutor went to the courts “on their own” without Congress to get permission.
Barr “has attempted to keep the information,” Cicilline said, “so for us to wait and pray and hope that Mr. Barr will find his way to the courthouse is foolish.”
Since Barr’s four-page summary of the findings were released, support for House Democratic investigations of the president has hardened along party lines, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll. The division offers a stark contrast to the start of the year, when an overall majority backed the lower chamber’s effort to probe whether the president or his allies conspired with Russia.
Still, 83 percent of respondents said the Mueller report should be made public in its entirety, public sentiment Democrats can use to their advantage when pressing for its release.