The House Judiciary Committee will markup and likely advance a motion to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress on Wednesday, after he failed to comply with a subpoena for an unredacted copy of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.
House Republicans are already denouncing the decision as an “illogical and disingenuous” move aimed at “smearing the attorney general.” But just a few years ago, when Eric Holder was in charge of the Justice Department, 238 House Republicans voted to hold him in contempt when he did not turn over requested documents related to a failed gunwalking sting called “Operation Fast and Furious.”
The 2012 contempt effort was spearheaded by then-House oversight chair Darrell Issa (R-CA). “I always believed that in time we would reach an accommodation sufficient to get the information needed for the American people while at the same time preserving the ongoing criminal investigations,” he lamented. But without the administration turning over the subpoenaed documents about the ATF program, he said, a contempt vote was necessary.
Issa even quoted 2008 comments by once-and-future House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to buttress his argument:
She said, “Congress has a responsibility of oversight of the executive branch. I know that members on both sides of the aisle take the responsibility very seriously. Oversight is an institutional obligation to ensure against abuse of power; subpoena authority is a vital tool of that oversight.”
Then-House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) also recounted the process that had brought the chamber to that point — first a “lawful and narrowly tailored subpoena” by a congressional committee, then time for the Justice Department to comply, and finally the determination that they were left with “no other options” but to hold Holder in contempt.
The current Congress’ request for the unredacted Mueller report follows a similar pattern: Congress first asked for access to the unredacted document; Barr offered limited viewing of a less-redacted version for some members only, with the understanding they would not talk to anyone about what they’d read; Congress responded by subpoenaing the full report; and Barr rejected that subpoena.
“The House is focused on jobs and the economy,” Boehner told his colleagues back in 2012. “But no Justice Department is above the law and no Justice Department is above the Constitution, which each of us has sworn an oath to uphold.”
Then-Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-PA), who resigned last year after settling a sexual harassment case, noted a “famous quotation in the Department of Justice about the responsibility of the Attorney General not being to win cases but to assure that justice is pursued and retained.”
Other members speaking on the floor in support of the 2012 measure included multiple House Republicans who are still in Congress today.
Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI) termed the Holder contempt motion as about “accountability” against an administration that would “rather play politics than uphold Congress’ right to investigate.”
“The Department [of Justice],” he complained, “has stood in open defiance of Congress’ moral and constitutional obligation to conduct oversight of this affair.”
Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) said the move was “long overdue.”
“Mr. Holder has shown his contempt and utter disdain for our constitutional rights, our border, Arizonans, and all Americans,” Gosar opined. “115 members of Congress agree that Americans lack confidence in Mr. Holder and his Department. Every member of Congress should do their constitutional duty and hold the attorney general in contempt today.”
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) put it in moral terms. “This isn’t about politics. This is about the constitution. And it’s about Congress’ mandate to do oversight over both the executive and judicial branches of government,” he said.
Sensenbrenner noted that while the Obama administration had asserted executive privilege to shield the requested documents, “in 1997 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit wrote, in part, ‘Moreover the privilege disappeared altogether when there is any reason to believe that there is government misconduct that has occurred.'”
Even Sen. Jim Lankford (R-OH), then serving in the House, endorsed the effort. “This is a moment to get all the facts, to get it on the table, find out what happened, and to get it done.” The motion passed, 255 to 67, with only two Republicans voting against.
Now that the shoe in on the other foot, House Republicans are doing what they usually do — pushing to defend Trump and his administration.
The top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) released a statement Monday opposing the contempt motion:
Chairman Nadler knows full subpoena compliance requires Attorney General Barr to break the law. Yet, instead of introducing legislation allowing the attorney general to provide Congress grand jury material, Democrats move to hold him in contempt. They know the Justice Department is working to negotiate even as they pursue contempt charges, making their move today illogical and disingenuous. Democrats have launched a proxy war smearing the attorney general when their anger actually lies with the president and the special counsel, who found neither conspiracy nor obstruction.
In a Fox News op-ed on the same day, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) claimed that House Democrats “[a]ttacking Attorney General Barr provides a substantial distraction to their narrative failure and is an effort to cover up the exoneration of President Trump.”
Mueller’s report did not exonerate President Donald Trump, though he and many Republicans have repeatedly claimed it did. The report, made public last month, did not find evidence of criminal coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia in 2016, but outlined extensive ties between the two sides, as well as 10 instances involving the president that may have constituted obstruction of justice.
Barr has since been accused of misleading Congress and the public about Mueller’s findings, which he claimed vindicated Trump. Though Mueller expressed concerns about that messaging in at least two letters to the attorney general in March, saying Barr had withheld crucial context, Barr continued to repeat the same talking points, calling the report a full exoneration of the president.
Republicans have also pressed forward with that messaging, suggesting Democrats were unfairly attacking the attorney general. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) told Fox News this week that “the real obstruction of justice is what Democrats are trying to do to the attorney general.”
And Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA) tweeted Monday that “the Dems are now after the AG purely for the sake of politics.”