Criminal contempt showdown on Barr, Ross brings 'more political theater' to the House
Former Deputy Independent Counsel Sol Wisenberg says House Democrats' push for Attorney General William Barr to be charged with criminal contempt is a purely political move.
The House of Representatives was once again playing host to a no-holds-barred partisan showdown on Wednesday, as lawmakers debated whether to hold Attorney Genera Bill Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in criminal contempt for allegedly stonewalling congressional probes into the Trump administration's efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.
In one heated moment, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., cited House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings' own words from 2012, when House Republicans were seeking to hold then-Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt.
"'Holding someone in contempt of Congress is one of the most serious and formal actions our committee can take," Meadows began. "It should not be used as a political tool to generate press as part of an election-year witch hunt. Now, who is responsible for that quote? It's not Jordan, it's not Cheney, It's Chairman Elijah Cummings!"
For his part, Cummings, D-Md., said the criminal contempt resolution "is about protecting democracy" and "protecting the integrity of this body."
"It's bigger than the census," Cummings declared. "I do not come to this floor lightly."
A vote on the contempt resolution is tentatively expected between 5:00 and 6:30 p.m. ET.
The sparks flew just a day after House of Representatives played host to a dramatic floor fight before finally passing a resolution condemning President Trump for making "racist" comments. The spat saw House Speaker Nancy Pelosi being ruled out of order and briefly losing her speaking privileges, as well as something of a "gavel-drop" moment when the presiding chair abandoned his post in frustration.
President Donald Trump is joined by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Attorney General William Barr, right, as he speaks in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, Thursday, July 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Even if the House ultimately votes to hold Ross and Barr in contempt, it is highly unlikely that they will face charges, as those would have to be pursued by the Trump administration’s Justice Department, which Barr heads. When Holder was ultimately held in contempt in 2012, his Justice Department under President Barack Obama did not pursue charges either.
“Oh, this is just more political theater,” Ross told Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo Wednesday morning. “It doesn’t really have any substantive basis. We produced to the committee more than 14,000 pages of documents. What’s at issue here is about a dozen documents, roughly 15 pages, all of which the courts didn’t find necessary to make their conclusion.”
"Oh, this is just more political theater."— Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross
Democrats could have opted to go down the road of civil contempt, but that would have meant bringing the matter before a court. Barr and Ross would then be able to raise the defense that they did not provide the requested materials because President Trump had asserted executive privilege over them.
“We are not stonewalling, but we are also not yielding on the very, very important matter of executive privilege,” Ross told Bartiromo. “These are privileged documents. They are going to remain privileged documents and we are not going to be frightened into changing that position just because of some action the house might take.”
House Democrats have been trying to get records that would explain why the administration has been trying to include the citizenship question. Ross claimed that the Department of Justice pushed for it to aid enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, but the Supreme Court found this was just a pretext.
Democrats opposed the citizenship question out of concern that it would discourage immigrants from responding to the census, skewing population numbers that could affect federal funding and congressional representation in areas with high immigrant populations.
The high court’s ruling said that a citizenship question could be permitted in theory, but there had to be a valid reason for it. Democrats have come out against the citizenship question, claiming that it would discourage people from responding to the census, affecting the amount of federal funding and the drawing of district maps in areas with large immigrant populations.
The Trump administration appeared to go back and forth on how to proceed following the Supreme Court’s ruling. At first, Ross’ Commerce Department said they were moving forward with printing the census questionnaires without the question, only for President Trump to then tweet that he was not giving up the fight to include it.
Eventually, Trump announced that the administration would not include the citizenship question on the census, but ordered the Commerce Department to compile citizenship information from various federal databases.
Separately, the House is also expected to vote to “disapprove” of the administration going around Congress and selling arms to Saudi Arabia. The move will likely set up another veto fight with the president.
In addition, the House is expected to handle the impeachment articles drafted by Rep. Al Green, D-Texas., who has long pushed for Trump to be removed from office. Green has said Trump's comments this weekend directed at four female progressive lawmakers are disqualifying.
However, the House is not expected to conduct a straight up-or-down vote on the articles, and Pelosi did not directly answer when asked at a press conference how she would proceed. Because House leaders have voiced skepticism about impeaching Trump, it is likely that the House will either vote to euthanize the articles, likely by referring them to a committee, or vote to table the articles outright.
Those procedural votes would not be votes on whether to impeach Trump, but rather votes to address the articles of impeachment themselves. However, the votes would formally take the temperature of the Democrat caucus on the matter for the first time since Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report was released, just days after Reps. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., called for Trump's impeachment in a fiery press conference.
It did remain possible that, despite expectations, the full House could vote on the actual impeachment articles by the end of the day, however.
The House previously voted to table Green’s articles of impeachment in December 2017 by a vote of 238-126, with four members voting present.
In January 2018, the articles were tabled by a vote of 234-121 with three Democrats voting present.
Fox News' Ronn Blitzer and Chad Pergram contributed to this report.