WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The Democratic-led US House of Representatives Judiciary Committee voted on Wednesday (April 3) to authorise subpoenas for Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s full, unredacted report and underlying evidence from his investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election.
The 24-17 vote along party lines – with Democrats in favour and President Donald Trump’s fellow Republicans opposed - authorised the panel’s chairman, Jerrold Nadler, to subpoena Mueller’s material.
The measure also authorised Nadler, a Democrat, to subpoena documents and testimony from five former Trump aides, including former political adviser Steve Bannon and former White House Counsel Donald McGahn.
The committee vote escalated congressional pressure on Attorney-General William Barr to hand over all that Mueller documented during his 22-month probe, including grand jury evidence.
The committee’s focus shifted to subpoenas when it became clear that Barr would ignore a Democratic demand for him to turn over the full report by April 2.
Barr has pledged to release the nearly 400-page report by mid-April, but were certain portions blacked out for reasons such as protecting secret grand jury information and intelligence-gathering sources and methods.
Democrats have expressed concern Barr, a Trump appointee, could use redactions to suppress evidence of potential misconduct by the president and his campaign.
“The Trump administration has an idea. They want to redact the Mueller report before they provide it to Congress,” Nadler said at committee meeting before the vote. “This committee has a job to do... That job requires us to evaluate the evidence for ourselves.”
Representative Doug Collins, the committee’s top Republican, said Nadler took the action because Democrats are “desperate for dirt on this president.”
“This is reckless. It’s irresponsible. And it’s disingenuous,” Collins said.
“It’s also confusing since the attorney-general is doing exactly what he said he would be doing: making as much of the report public as possible under federal law and departmental policy.”
Barr’s March 24 letter to lawmakers explaining Mueller’s “principal conclusions” said the special counsel did not establish that the Trump campaign conspired with Russia during the election but also did not exonerate Trump on obstruction of justice.
Barr himself subsequently concluded that Mueller’s inquiry had not found sufficient evidence to warrant criminal obstruction charges against Trump.
Trump has denied collusion with Russia and obstruction of justice. Moscow denied election interference. Mueller and US intelligence agencies concluded Russia used a campaign of hacking and propaganda to harm Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and boost Trump.
In addition to McGahn and Bannon, the committee authorized subpoenas for former White House communications director Hope Hicks, former chief of staff Reince Priebus and former White House deputy counsel Ann Donaldson.
Priebus declined to comment. William Burck, a lawyer for Priebus, Bannon and McGahn, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
NEW LEGAL FRONT
Issuing subpoenas would open a new legal front against the Trump administration by Democrats, who won control of the House in last year’s congressional elections. The potential battle between the executive branch and the legislative branch over the subpoenas could end up being waged in the federal government’s third branch – the judiciary.
The Justice Department declined to comment. It was not clear how likely the department would be to hand over the documents.
It could ignore a subpoena, running the risk of being held in contempt of Congress, and prepare for a potentially lengthy court battle.
Democrats have pledged to fight all the way to the US Supreme Court to enforce a subpoena and obtain the full report.
“If the department still refuses, then it should be up to a judge – not the president or his political appointee – to decide whether it is appropriate for the committee to review the complete record,” Nadler said.
Republicans said Barr is being transparent under Justice Department regulations that allow the attorney-general wide latitude in what he releases from special counsel inquiries.
They also contend that Democrats are seeking grand jury material that federal law precludes the Justice Department from sharing.
Nadler told reporters he would also seek a judge’s permission to get access to Mueller’s grand jury material, which is protected by law. Nadler said Barr has not been willing to seek a court order to release the data so far.
“We are going to work with the attorney-general for a short period of time in the hope that he will reveal to us the entire Mueller report and all the underlying materials, and we’ll go to court to get permission to have the (grand jury) material,” Nadler said.
“But if that doesn’t work out in a very short order, we will issue the subpoenas... The committee must see everything.”
Republican Representative Jim Sensenbrenner said he would be willing to join legal action to obtain the grand jury material and predicted other Republicans would as well.
The five former Trump aides who may receive subpoenas were among 81 people, agencies and other entities that received document requests on March 4 as part of the committee’s obstruction and corruption investigation of Trump and his associates.