House Authorizes Lawsuits Against Barr, McGahn in Trump Probes
William Barr, U.S. attorney general, waits to begin a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing after a break in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

House Authorizes Lawsuits Against Barr, McGahn in Trump Probes

(Bloomberg) -- The House voted to authorize lawsuits against Attorney General William Barr and former White House Counsel Don McGahn as Democrats try to enforce subpoenas for documents and testimony in its investigations into President Donald Trump and his administration.

The resolution was approved 229-191 Tuesday along party lines in the Democratic-controlled House.

Immediately afterward, House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler said his panel will “move as quickly as possible to go to court” against McGahn and will do the same if other witnesses -- including former White House advisers Hope Hicks and Annie Donaldson -- refuse to respond to subpoenas.

Nadler said his panel wants to hear from "other key figures and fact witnesses" in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report, specifically naming Assistant Attorney General Joseph "Jody" Hunt and former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rick Dearborn.

The Judiciary chairman said he won’t go to court against Barr if the Justice Department fulfills its recent agreement to begin making documents available.

House Authorizes Lawsuits Against Barr, McGahn in Trump Probes

The resolution stops short of holding Barr and McGahn in contempt of Congress. Instead, its focus on civil legal action reflects the middle-ground approach taken by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who’s trying to finesse pressure within her party to open impeachment proceedings against Trump that she’s warned could backfire politically.

Pelosi accused Trump of a “campaign of blanket, unprecedented obstruction,” from “witness intimidation to blanket stonewalling to spurious claims of executive privilege, absolute immunity and lack of legislative purpose.”

“This obstruction violates decades of legal precedent,” she said on the House floor shortly before the vote.

Representative Doug Collins, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, accused Democrats of taking “novel, untested and risky” action.

“The goal is clearly to haul the administration into court in an attempt to pacify a base rabid for impeachment,” Collins said.

Special Counsel Mueller

The measure, H.Res. 430, also authorizes the House to sue to obtain grand jury information from Mueller's Russia report, which would require a court order to release.

It permits a number of committee chairmen to bypass future floor votes in order to file additional lawsuits in their probes, ratcheting up the constitutional showdown between the House and a president who has vowed that “we’re fighting all the subpoenas.”

Nadler’s panel is seeking to obtain more information about Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether Trump sought to obstruct the probe.

“When a congressional committee issues a subpoena, compliance is not optional,” Nadler said on the House floor. “We have never faced such blanket stonewallings.”

The measure’s sponsor, Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, called it “a civil enforcement resolution that will strengthen our hand in court as Congress tries to get documents this administration is currently trying to hide.”

But House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy called the resolution “a desperate attempt to relitigate the Mueller investigation.”

“Fundamentally, it is an impeachment effort in everything but name,” McCarthy said.

House Authorizes Lawsuits Against Barr, McGahn in Trump Probes

McGahn, the former White House counsel, defied a Judiciary Committee subpoena to turn over documents and testify, citing White House protective assertions of executive privilege. One of the legal issues is whether the administration waived executive privilege for McGahn by allowing him to cooperate with Mueller’s investigation. He became a key witness cited frequently in Mueller’s final report.

‘No Choice’

On Barr, Nadler said Monday that the Justice Department had agreed to begin turning over some information the panel subpoenaed on redacted portions of Mueller’s report and the underlying evidence. If important information is held back by Barr, Nadler said, “we will have no choice but to enforce our subpoena in court and consider other options.”

But the deal only begins a process to accommodate lawmakers, and doesn’t guarantee they will get access to everything they want, according to an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to manage expectations. The White House would be informed if lawmakers seek material that may fall under executive privilege and would be given the opportunity to refuse access on that basis, the official said.

Nor has a decision been made about giving lawmakers access to Mueller’s underlying evidence, such as witness interview notes, the official said.

For now, Nadler is keeping a separate, committee-passed criminal contempt action against the attorney general on hold.

The new process the House authorized could be used for other investigations of the Trump administration. The Oversight and Reform Committee has scheduled a vote for Wednesday on actions to hold Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt for refusing to turn over documents tied to the administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census.

The Trump administration has also refused to comply with a subpoena by the House Ways and Means Committee, led by Massachusetts Democrat Richard Neal, for Trump’s tax information.

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