June 6, 2019 / 6:10 PM / 3 months ago

U.S. House Democrats move to fight Trump's stonewalling in court

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. congressional Democrats moved closer on Thursday to suing in federal court for access to the unredacted Mueller report on Russian election meddling, and its underlying evidence, taking a step bound to intensify their clash with President Donald Trump.

FILE PHOTO - U.S. Attorney General William Barr participates in a news conference after a meeting with Attorney Generals of Northern Triangle of Central America in San Salvador, El Salvador May 16, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

After months of stonewalling by Trump of their many investigations of him and his presidency, Democrats unveiled a resolution that authorizes the House Judiciary Committee to seek a court order to enforce its subpoenas against U.S. Attorney General William Barr and former White House Counsel Don McGahn.

Both have refused to cooperate with the Judiciary Committee, which wants the unredacted report by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller on his probe into Russian election meddling and possible obstruction of the probe by Trump, and documents related to the investigation, as well as testimony from McGahn, a major player in the Mueller inquiry.

The resolution, which the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives is expected to consider on Tuesday, replaces an earlier plan by House lawmakers to vote formally on whether to hold Barr and McGahn in contempt of Congress, aides said.

Introduced by the House Rules Committee, the measure also sets out terms for possible court action by other House committees that are investigating the president and authorizes the Judiciary Committee to petition a federal judge for access to Mueller’s grand jury evidence.

The House Ways and Means Committee is similarly poised to file a federal lawsuit to enforce subpoenas of Trump’s individual and business tax returns.

Congressional committees already have the authority to seek court remedies. But Democratic aides said Tuesday’s vote is intended to reaffirm congressional authority to enforce subpoenas against White House efforts to stymie investigations by six separate House committees.

“We will not allow this president and his administration to turn a blind eye to the rule of law,” Rules Committee Chairman James McGovern, who will take up the measure on Monday, said in a statement.

“The Trump administration is waging an unprecedented campaign of stonewalling and obstruction ... This resolution will allow Congress to hold the president accountable.”

Justice Department officials were not immediately available to comment on the resolution.

The measure follows through on House Democrats’ plans to go to court in their quest for an unredacted copy of Mueller’s report. Democrats say they are confident of swift court victories after decisive court rulings against Trump’s efforts to block subpoenas of his financial records issued by three other House panels.

Barr released a redacted version of the 448-page report on April 18. He later disregarded a House Judiciary Committee subpoena demanding release of the full report, along with the underlying evidence that Mueller relied on.

The House Judiciary panel voted on May 8 to cite Barr for contempt of Congress. The House Oversight Committee is also weighing contempt citations against Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross for failing to comply with subpoenas in its probe of their handling of the U.S. Census.

The Oversight panel had set a Thursday deadline for Barr and Ross to produce the requested documents.

In a letter to Cummings on Thursday, the Justice Department called a contempt vote “entirely premature” and declined to hand over the specific documents demanded, saying they were protected by attorney-client privilege and other doctrines. It said it was still working to produce other papers the committee requested.

FILE PHOTO - White House Counsel Don McGahn listens during the confirmation hearing for U.S. Supreme Court nominee judge Brett Kavanaugh on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 4, 2018. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

The White House has asserted the seldom-used principle of executive privilege to try to keep the full Mueller report under wraps, even though Trump allowed aides to speak with Mueller during his investigation.

House Judiciary also subpoenaed McGahn, seeking his testimony, which he refused to provide in line with a pattern of stonewalling by Trump of Democrats’ inquiries.

Lawmakers have said they would vote to hold Barr and McGahn in contempt. But on Thursday, aides said a formal contempt vote would have referred the case for criminal prosecution, a move unlikely to succeed with Barr at the helm of the Justice Department. Lawmakers instead opted for the new resolution.

Reporting by David Morgan; editing by James Dalgleish, Tom Brown and Richard Chang

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