President Trump lashed out Wednesday against a widening web of congressional probes that demonstrated the limits of his strategy to declare victory and try to move past the 22-month special counsel investigation into Russian interference that has consumed much of his presidency.
Yet Trump’s latest efforts to defend himself ran into new obstacles as a House panel moved to hold two Cabinet officials — Attorney General William P. Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross — in contempt of Congress over the administration’s efforts to shield documents related to its decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census.
The committee vote came several hours after Trump asserted executive privilege over the material related to the 2020 Census.
By day’s end, there was more potential bad news for the White House as Hope Hicks, the president’s longtime adviser who left last year, agreed to become the first former aide to testify next week for a House Judiciary Committee probe into whether the president sought to obstruct the Russia investigation.
Meanwhile, Trump invited further scrutiny when, in an interview with ABC News, he seemed to suggest that he would accept opposition research on a presidential rival from a foreign government.
“It’s not an interference; they have information — I think I’d take it,” he said. “If I thought there was something wrong, I’d go maybe to the FBI — if I thought there was something wrong.”
Trump was unable to mask his anger with the congressional investigations during a photo op ahead of a bilateral meeting with Polish President Andrzej Duda in the Oval Office.
“I don’t know if you have this, Mr. President, but we have people that are totally out of control,” Trump told Duda, referring to Democrats. As he has before, Trump accused his political rivals of trying to undermine his presidency to “win the election,” and he professed that “the American public is not going to stand for it.”
Democrats, however, showed no signs of backing down even though there are divisions in the House over whether to launch an impeachment inquiry into whether Trump’s efforts to influence former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation amounted to obstruction of justice.
The Senate Intelligence Committee held a second closed-door interview on Wednesday with Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, over his role in meeting with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign amid suspicions by Democrats that he previously lied to Congress.
Trump Jr. declared after the three-hour session that he is “not at all” worried that he would face perjury charges.
“I don’t think I changed anything of what I said because there was nothing to change,” he told reporters on Capitol Hill. “I’m glad that this is finally over. We were able to put some final clarity on that, and I think the committee understands that.”
While President Trump has declared repeatedly that Mueller found “no obstruction, no collusion,” Democrats, citing 10 instances of possible obstruction laid out in Mueller’s report, have continued to ratchet up the pressure on the White House through subpoenas, hearings and lawsuits.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has met Trump’s accusations of Democratic overreach, which Trump has termed “PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT!” on Twitter, by treading cautiously around the impeachment question but emphasizing, a senior Democratic aide said, that her caucus “will continue to legislate, investigate and litigate.”
“It’s not about Democrats or Republicans, partisanship or anything like that. It’s about patriotism,” Pelosi said in a closed-door meeting with fellow House Democrats, according to the aide. “We have to uphold the Constitution of the United States. And in order to do that we have to be ready. As ready as we can be.”
The chairs of several House committees then provided lawmakers with an update on their investigations, and Doug Letter, the House general counsel, detailed the status of lawsuits over Trump’s transfer of funds for his planned border wall, according to the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide a summary of a private meeting.
Trump fought back by continuing to insist that Mueller’s report exonerated him and declaring that his administration had been “the most transparent presidency in history” — even though it has banned Trump’s former aides from responding to subpoenas and sought to prevent a private bank from turning over his financial records.
“There’s never been anybody so transparent,” Trump said, apparently referring to his team’s cooperation with Mueller’s investigation. “We gave them 1.5 million documents. We gave them hundreds of people. I gave them lawyers, which I didn’t have to give. I didn’t have to give anybody. We gave them everybody.”
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers were fuming that the White House has not provided nearly enough. The 23 Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, along with Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), who has accused Trump of impeachable acts, voted to hold Barr and Ross in contempt in a nearly party-line vote. The 15 other Republicans on the committee objected.
“The committee’s attempt to define the Department of Justice’s good-faith cooperation as ‘contempt’ defies logic,” department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said.
The developments marked a further escalation in the fight over the investigatory powers of Congress that is playing out in multiple committees and the courts. The committee and the Justice Department could still work out a deal for the documents related to the 2020 Census decision and testimony from a senior Justice Department official.
Absent an agreement, the full House would vote on the contempt resolution, though the timing is unclear.
Organizations challenging the citizenship question at the Supreme Court on Wednesday night asked the justices to put off a pending decision on whether it can be added to the 2020 Census form. They told the justices that if they are not prepared to affirm lower court rulings keeping the question off the census form, they should send the issue back to a lower court to consider new allegations that the question was added at the behest of a Republican operative to benefit the party and white voters in general.
“Even an appearance that the government has manipulated the census for partisan and racially discriminatory purposes would undermine public confidence in our representative democracy,” American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Dale Ho wrote in the request.
The Justice Department and the Oversight Committee are essentially on the same trajectory as the department and the House Judiciary Committee were last month, when the Judiciary Committee voted to hold Barr in contempt for failing to turn over materials related to Mueller’s probe.
In that case, though, the Judiciary Committee and the Justice Department later worked out a compromise. That contempt process is in “abeyance,” though Democrats have taken steps to make sure they have the ability to sue the department in court.
Democrats say the larger issue is that the White House is almost completely rejecting congressional oversight — stonewalling requests for documents and blocking witnesses from testifying on various subjects. The administration, meanwhile, argues that Democrats are requesting far more materials than they should legally have access to in an attempt to embarrass the president and that they have been unwilling to negotiate.
In a statement, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said the Trump administration was employing “a strategy — led by the president — to obstruct congressional investigations across the board.”
“Today’s contempt vote was the last thing I wanted to do,” Cummings said. “I bent over backwards to try to work with the administration, but they delayed, dissembled, and degraded our committee’s efforts.”
The temperature is likely to be turned up even hotter next Wednesday when Hicks, who left the administration last summer and took a job as a Fox communications executive, returns to Washington for her appearance before the House Judiciary Committee.
Earlier this month, the White House instructed Hicks not to cooperate with a congressional subpoena for documents related to her White House service.
Her testimony will occur behind closed doors, said people familiar with the arrangement, but a transcript will be released to the public. A member of the White House Counsel’s Office will be present for the testimony as part of the deal between Hicks and the committee, according to an individual who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the sensitive plans.
The testimony marks a significant breakthrough for the committee, which took the unusual step earlier this week of bringing in John W. Dean III, a lawyer from Richard M. Nixon’s White House, to talk about obstruction.
For Trump, the development cast a pall over his meetings with Duda.
“Just every day they’re going to be going more and more” after his administration, Trump said in the Oval Office. A short while later, the two leaders stepped to the South Lawn to watch as an F-35 warplane soared over the White House.
It was a show arranged by Trump to celebrate an arms deal with Poland. But it also stood as an apt metaphor for a president engaged in an escalating, multifront battle.
Rosalind S. Helderman, Rachael Bade, Robert Barnes and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.