House holds Barr, Ross in criminal contempt, as GOP decries more political theater
The Democrat-controlled House of Representatives on Wednesday voted to hold Attorney General Bill Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in criminal contempt, saying they were stonewalling congressional probes into the Trump administration’s efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.
The vote was one of a series of rapid-fire developments to rock the House, coming less than an hour after a revived effort to impeach President Trump was effectively killed. And on Tuesday, a chaotic and historic floor fight all but derailed Democrats’ resolution to present a unified front and condemn President Trump’s “racist” remarks over the weekend.
The vote to hold Barr and Ross in criminal contempt was 230-198, with 4 Democrats and all Republicans voting no. Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, now an independent after leaving the Republican Party, voted yes.
Ross issued a fiery statement immediately after the vote, charging that House Democrats “never sought to have a productive relationship with the Trump Administration.”
“Today’s PR stunt further demonstrates their unending quest to generate headlines instead of operating in good faith with our Department,” Ross said. “It is an unfortunate fact that there are some who would like nothing more than to see this Administration fail whatever the cost to the country may be. Preferring to play political games rather than help lead the country, they have made every attempt to ascribe evil motivations to everyday functions of government.”
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)
In a separate statement, Department of Justice Spokesperson Kerri Kupec called the moment “a new low for Speaker Pelosi’s House of Representatives.”
“The Department of Justice has worked for months to supply thousands of documents to accommodate Congress’s requests,” Kupec said. “Additionally, many documents at issue with this particular vote have been held privileged by a federal court. …This vote is nothing more than a political stunt. While the House plays games, the Department will continue its critical work of pursuing justice and ensuring safety for all Americans.”
House Republicans echoed those sentiments.
“Democrats are engaged in yet another episode of political theater in an attempt to delegitimize the citizenship question,” Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the top Republican on the House Oversight Committee, said in a statement after the vote.
“The Administration is complying with the Democrats’ investigation. Asking about citizenship is neither new nor controversial,” Jordan added. “Today’s vote shows that Democrats in Congress will stop at nothing to attack the President and his Administration. The Democrats’ misuse of their contempt authority today raises the question: why don’t they want to know how many American citizens are in this country?”
It remained highly unlikely that Barr and Ross 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.
Still, debate over the contempt resolution during the day was contentious. In one spirited 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 over the botched Obama-sanctioned gunrunning sting operation known as “Fast and Furious.”
“‘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.”
“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.”
In a letter to Pelosi on Wednesday, Barr and Ross slammed the House panel’s decision to “recommend the House wield its criminal contempt authority even though we reamin willing to work towards an appropriate accomodation notwithstanding the privileged status of the documents at issue and the active litigation that remains pending in this matter.”
“We urge that the House postpone the contempt vote in order to allow the constitutionally mandated accomodation process to continue,” Barr and Ross wrote. ” And we respectfully remind the Committee that the constitutionally required obligation to engage in good-faith accomodation cuts both ways.”
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 voted 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.
“Today, the House voted to disapprove of the Trump Administration’s ill-conceived decision to allow the sale of sensitive military equipment and munitions to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which continue to prosecute a war in Yemen whose main outcome has been an unmitigated humanitarian disaster and military stalemate,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said in a statement.
“Using force to pressure the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who have committed terrible atrocities and are responsible for horrible civilian suffering, into accepting coalition demands has demonstrably not worked,” Hoyer continued. “I am encouraged by reports the UAE is now reassessing its role in this conflict; we ought to be doing the same.”
In addition, the House voted to effectively kill 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.
The vote to table the articles of impeachment succeeded 332-95. Every Republican voted to table the bill, and 137 Democrats joined them. Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, now an independent, voted yes, and Oregon Democrat Rep. Peter DeFazio voted present.
The vote was not a straight up-or-down vote on whether to impeach Trump. Rather, it was a procedural move to euthanize Green’s articles.
“I opposed this procedural motion because this article of impeachment should have been referred to the House Judiciary Committee,” that panel’s chairman, Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said in a statement. “One resolution related to impeachment has already been referred to the Committee. The subject matter of Congressman Green’s resolution was separate and distinct and did not go directly to the issues of obstruction, corruption, and abuse of power at the core of our investigation—but it, too, should have been referred to us.”
Nadler added: “My hope is that future impeachment resolutions be referred here as well, so that they can also be considered as part of the Committee’s overall response to clear allegations of presidential misconduct.”
Despite the procedural concerns, the vote did 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.
Omar even charged that there was “credible evidence” Trump had colluded illegally with Russians, despite Mueller’s contrary findings after a lengthy probe. Mueller, in fact, found that Russian actors had made numerous attempts to involve the Trump team in their hacking efforts, but that there was no evidence the Trump team ever conspired with them either to hack or engage in social media disinformation campaigns.
Democrats, including Pelosi, have long warned that there is not enough substantive justification for impeachment. And the issue is a hot one for swing-state Democrats who risk alienating moderates.