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The House Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt over the Justice Department's refusal to comply with Democrats' subpoena for special counsel Robert Mueller's unredacted Russia report and its underlying evidence.
The 24-16 vote passed along party lines in the Democrat-led committee shortly after President Donald Trump asserted executive privilege over the Mueller report, an escalation of an already-intense political brawl that appears to be headed to the courts.
The vote on contempt will now head to the full House, where Democrats control a majority of seats. It was not immediately clear when that vote would be scheduled.
"We did not relish doing this, but we had no choice," committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said after the hearing. Nadler accused Barr of misleading Congress in his testimony and of "turning the entire Department of Justice into an instrument of Trump personally."
Nadler added: "We've talked for a long time about approaching a constitutional crisis. We are now in it."
Lawmakers fought over whether the assertion of executive privilege was valid, and traded barbs throughout the lengthy hearing about the legality and the alleged political motives behind the contempt proceedings.
Democrats stressed that they were holding Barr in contempt as they pushed for the full report — and the "millions" of pages of underlying evidence that have so far been withheld by the DOJ — in the name of transparency, accountability and oversight.
"Our fight is not just about the Mueller report — although we must have access to the Mueller report," Nadler said. "Our fight is about defending the rights of Congress, as an independent branch, to hold the president accountable."
Republicans, however, accused Democrats of using Barr as a "whipping boy" and a stepping stone on the path toward impeaching Trump.
"Bill Barr is following the law, and what's his reward? Democrats are going to hold him in contempt," said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio.
"This is all about impeaching the president," said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., after Georgia Democrat Hank Johnson mentioned in his remarks the prospect of impeaching Trump following further investigation.
Barr, who oversaw the final phase of the special counsel's 22-month investigation after taking the reins from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, made redactions to the report in four categories. Those included information related to ongoing investigations and testimony from a grand jury that is included in the report. Barr and the DOJ, citing federal rules, say they are bound not to reveal grand jury testimony to Congress or the public.
Nadler's subpoena requested "the complete and unredacted version of the report" submitted by Mueller to the Justice Department on March 22. But at the hearing Wednesday, the chairman said that "the subpoena was never intended to cover" the rule barring the release of grand jury information. Instead, Nadler said that he wanted the Justice Department to ask a court for permission to release that material, as has been done in the past.
That led to some initial confusion and protest from Republicans, prompting ranking member Doug Collins, R-Ga., to argue that the contempt proceedings were moving too quickly. Nadler responded that it was only until the threat of contempt arose that the DOJ opened itself to negotiations with the House panel.
Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement: "It is deeply disappointing that elected representatives of the American people have chosen to engage in such inappropriate political theatrics."
Nadler, the spokeswoman said, "forced the President to assert executive privilege to preserve the status quo. No one, including Chairman Nadler and his Committee, will force the Department of Justice to break the law."
The vote Wednesday afternoon came a day after the House panel's staff met with Justice Department officials in a last-minute attempt to hash out differences between the two sides over Mueller's report. That meeting lasted less than 30 minutes, and Nadler was not present, NBC News reported, citing two sources familiar with the meeting.
Nadler first threatened to hold Barr in contempt Monday, after the Justice Department blew past the Democrat-led committee's second deadline to hand over an unredacted version of the Mueller report, along with all of its underlying evidence.
Nadler had subpoenaed Barr on April 18 for the materials, saying his committee is "entitled" to them. The DOJ called that measure "unnecessary."
Barr had made a less-redacted version of the report available to a handful of lawmakers from both major political parties in a secure room on Capitol Hill. But Nadler and other Democrats rejected that option, demanding instead that Barr give the full report to all of Congress.
Politico, citing two sources familiar with the negotiations, reported that the Justice Department offered at the Tuesday meeting for lawmakers to allow more staff members to come with them to view the secured version of the Mueller report, as well as keep their handwritten notes. But the DOJ did not offer to allow more members of Congress to view the less-redacted version, according to Politico.
On Tuesday night, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd sent a letter to Nadler saying that the panel's continued demands were "unreasonable." Boyd demanded that the committee cancel the contempt vote, or else Barr will recommend that President Donald Trump invoke executive privilege over the materials requested by the subpoena.
Nadler slammed the department in response, saying that that is "not how executive privilege works." "The White House waived these privileges long ago, and the [DOJ] seemed open to sharing these materials with us earlier today," Nadler said.
Trump did assert executive privilege Wednesday morning. But Barr said that that "protective assertion" gave Trump the option to make a "final assertion" on whether to make the claim for all or merely some of the materials related to the Mueller report.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was more unequivocal. "Neither the White House nor Attorney General Barr will comply with Chairman Nadler's unlawful and reckless demands," Sanders said. "Faced with Chairman Nadler's blatant abuse of power, and at the Attorney General's request, the President has no other option than to make a protective assertion of executive privilege."
Mueller's team wrote in their 448-page report that they found insufficient evidence to show that the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia during the 2016 presidential election. Mueller did not determine on whether Trump himself obstructed the investigation, but Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein concluded from the report that there wasn't enough evidence to recommend an obstruction offense.