WASHINGTON • A Democratic-led House panel has approved a measure to hold US Attorney-General William Barr in contempt for refusing to hand over an unredacted copy of the Mueller report on Russian election interference even as President Donald Trump invoked the legal principle of executive privilege to block its disclosure.
Throwing down another challenge to Mr Trump, the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee voted to recommend that the full House cite Mr Barr, the top US law enforcement official and a Trump appointee, for contempt of Congress after he defied its subpoena for the complete report and underlying evidence.
"We are now in a constitutional crisis," Mr Jerrold Nadler, the committee's Democratic chairman, told reporters after the panel approved the contempt resolution on a party-line 24-16 vote, with Democrats in favour and Republicans opposed.
The confrontation escalated a clash between the Democratic-controlled House and Republican President over congressional authority under the Constitution to investigate him, his administration, family and business interests.
Wednesday's vote came hours after the White House took its own provocative step, asserting executive privilege to block the release of special counsel Robert Mueller's full report on Russian actions to boost Mr Trump's candidacy in the 2016 election and related evidence such as investigative interviews.
"It is deeply disappointing that elected representatives of the American people have chosen to engage in such inappropriate political theatrics," Justice Department spokesman Kerri Kupec said, adding that no one would force the department "to break the law" by handing over documents that cannot be disclosed, such as secret grand jury material.
A House vote to hold Mr Barr in contempt was likely to trigger a court battle, with fines and possible imprisonment at stake for him. The next step will be a floor vote by the full House, which Mr Nadler said would come "rapidly", without being more specific.
Executive privilege is only rarely invoked by US presidents to keep other branches of government from getting access to certain internal executive branch information. Mr Trump had not previously taken such a step in his showdown with Congress.
The President, who is seeking re-election in 2020, is pushing back against numerous probes by House Democrats, ranging from Mr Mueller's inquiry to matters such as Mr Trump's tax returns and past financial records.
Mr Mueller's report detailed extensive contacts between Mr Trump's campaign and Moscow, as well as the campaign's expectation of benefiting from Russia's efforts to tilt the election in Mr Trump's favour.
But Mr Mueller concluded there was insufficient evidence to show a criminal conspiracy between Russia and the campaign.
The report also described numerous actions by Mr Trump to try to impede Mr Mueller's investigation, but Mr Mueller offered no conclusion on whether Mr Trump committed criminal obstruction.