The immediate consequences will be mostly symbolic. About 10 percent of the Mueller report was redacted, at times clearly because it involved information relevant to the upcoming trial of longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone. The next step in the proceedings will be a vote on the House floor. Although it will likely pass since Democrats control the chamber, Barr will probably face few legal repercussions, as federal prosecutors are unlikely to pursue criminal penalties for a contempt of Congress charge against their own boss.
But the speed with which Democrats took the nearly unprecedented measure — it is only the second time in U.S. history that the nation’s top law enforcement officer was held in contempt of Congress — and the surrounding cloud of suspicion and counter-charges reflected the unprecedented scope of conflict between the executive and legislative branches.
In the 48 hours since the Judiciary Committee announced it would hold contempt proceedings on Monday, the Trump Administration issued a flurry of rejections for congressional requests, adding to an already deep pile. On Monday, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin announced he would not turn over the President’s tax returns to the Ways and Means Committee; on Tuesday, the White House told former White House Counsel Don McGahn not to comply with a subpoena from the judiciary committee; and on Wednesday, after a day of futile negotiations between the committee and the Department of Justice, it invoked executive privilege over the redacted portions of the Mueller report.
Democrats unsurprisingly used the high-profile proceedings on contempt to highlight what Nadler is deeming a constitutional crisis. As the markup stretched into the afternoon, the sentiments became less about Barr’s actions and more about about preserving the powers of the legislative branch.
“This is unprecedented,” Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler said in his opening statement after listing all the other ways the White House has stonewalled Congress. “If allowed to go unchecked, this obstruction means the end of congressional oversight. As a co-equal branch of government, we should not and cannot allow this to continue.”
Every member of the committee was allotted a brief time to speak, and the tenor reflected the partisan tensions. Democrats’ comments largely echoed Nadler’s about the state of U.S. democracy. Republicans, by comparison, defended Barr, arguing that Democrats were on a “witch hunt,” and wanted Barr to break the law by handing over the un-redacted report. Several also pointed out Democrats moved much more quickly to hold Barr in contempt than Republicans on the oversight committee did with his Democratic predecessor Eric Holder in 2012 when they were seeking documents in the Fast and Furious case.
“[Democrats] have moved from request to contempt vote in only 43 days, and yet the Justice Department is still at the negotiating table — waiting for Democrats to arrive in good faith,” said ranking member Doug Collins, adding that Democrats want to “sully Bill Barr’s good name and reputation.”
Department of Justice spokesperson Kerri Kupec released a statement after the vote, calling it “politically motivated,” and “unnecessary.” “It is deeply disappointing that elected representatives of the American people have chosen to engage in such inappropriate political theatrics,” she said.
There is undoubtedly some irony that Barr is the first administration official facing contempt proceedings when his department, unlike the White House counsel’s office, actually came to the table to negotiate. And it is also true that the vote to hold Holder in contempt was, like Barr, upheld along party lines. But veterans of Congressional oversight say that, more than anything, it is this partisanship that is the problem.
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