VOA’s White House correspondent Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report.
The U.S. House Judiciary Committee was due to vote Wednesday on holding hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress over the Justice Department’s refusal to provide an unredacted copy of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on his investigation of Russian election interference.
Before the vote was held, the White House said President Donald Trump has “no other option than to make a protective assertion of executive privilege” over the materials the committee asked for in its subpoena, due to what Press Secretary Sarah Sanders called a “blatant abuse of power” by committee chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler.
“The American people see through Chairman Nadler’s desperate ploy to distract from the President’s historically successful agenda and our booming economy. Neither the White House nor Attorney General Barr will comply with Chairman Nadler’s unlawful and reckless demands,” Sanders said in a statement.
Committee leaders and Justice Department officials had met Tuesday to try to resolve their dispute, but the two sides each issued statements late in the day indicating they remained far apart.
The Justice Department’s positions came in the form of a letter to Nadler from Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd who accused Nadler’s committee of making “unreasonable demands” and provoking “an unnecessary conflict between our respective branches of government.”
Boyd said the Justice Department had acted within the law and regulations by offering a copy of the Mueller report “with as few redactions as possible,” but said committee leaders escalated the dispute by demanding all committee members be allowed to review that version, something he said would “risk violating court orders” in some ongoing cases.
Nadler in his statement said the White House had long ago waived its executive privilege over the materials requested in the subpoena, which include not only the full Mueller report but also the underlying documents from the investigation of Russia’s interference with the 2016 election, whether members of Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia, and whether the president obstructed justice.
If the Democrat-controlled Judiciary Committee approves the contempt citation for the attorney general, it would be taken up by the full House of Representatives. In theory, someone held in contempt could eventually be tried and, if convicted, face up to a year in prison. The Justice Department rarely pursues such referrals from Congress.
Nadler’s committee is also considering whether to hold Donald McGahn, the former White House counsel, in contempt of Congress if he refuses to testify before the committee later this month about the Mueller probe.
McGahn on Tuesday refused to comply with a subpoena for documents related to the investigation. The White House had demanded he ignore the subpoena, and his lawyer said the documents were property of the White House and as such McGahn had no right to them.
Barr last month released a redacted copy of the Mueller report, with the prosecutor concluding neither Trump nor his campaign colluded with Russia, but reached no conclusion whether Trump, as president, obstructed justice during the 22-month investigation. Barr decided the findings did not warrant obstruction charges against the president.
In an online statement under the name DOJ Alumni, more than 700 former federal prosecutors, so far, who worked in Republican and Democratic administrations said evidence Mueller uncovered would have resulted in obstruction charges against Trump, were it not for the long-standing Justice Department policy that a sitting president cannot be charged with a criminal offense.
U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell says it is time for lawmakers to move on from the Russia investigation.
But top Democratic leaders immediately disputed McConnell. Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer called McConnell’s remarks “an astounding bit of whitewashing,” while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, “That’s just not a fact. The case is not closed.”