WASHINGTON — The U.S. House on Tuesday approved Democrats’ measure to make it easier for lawmakers to take legal action against Trump administration officials who defy congressional subpoenas.
The resolution — passed 229-191 along party lines — specifically allows lawsuits against Attorney General William Barr and former White House Counsel Don McGahn, both of whom defied subpoenas issued by the House Judiciary Committee in relation to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe.
More broadly, the measure allows committee leaders to file lawsuits that aim to enforce subpoenas, even without a full House vote, if they have approval from a bipartisan group of leaders of the chamber.
The move appears to mark a strategic shift for House Democrats as they spar with a president who has vowed to fight “all the subpoenas.” Instead of pursuing criminal contempt against Barr and McGahn — which would be referred to the Justice Department and likely quashed — House Democrats are looking instead toward the courts.
House Democrats — including the leaders of committees conducting oversight of the administration — portrayed the measure as an important tool for nudging a “stonewalling” president.
“The Trump administration is engaged in one of the most unprecedented cover-ups since Watergate,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee. “It’s not just about Russia, it is so much broader than that.”
Cummings said that in all of his committee’s investigations, “The White House has not produced one single shred of paper in response to our requests.” Cummings’ committee is slated to vote on Wednesday to hold Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress over defying subpoenas related to a possible citizenship question on the 2020 census.
Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee who has sought Trump’s financial documents, accused the administration of “unprecedented stonewalling.” She said of Trump, “Who does he think he is, a dictator?”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said on the House floor ahead of the vote Tuesday, “When a congressional committee issues a subpoena, compliance is not optional.”
Nadler on Monday announced he had reached a deal with the Justice Department to secure evidence underlying Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report, and would be holding the “criminal contempt process in abeyance for now.” Nadler’s committee previously voted to hold Barr in contempt for refusing to hand over an unredacted version of the Mueller report.
House Republicans, however, accused Democrats of continuing to waste time on investigating Trump in an attempt to score political points.
“It is clear to me that the Democrats are trying to influence the 2020 presidential election at taxpayer expense,” said Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., a member of the Judiciary Committee.
Virginia Rep. Ben Cline, a freshman Republican who joined that committee in January, said he’s been frustrated by the “circus” he’s witnessed there in recent months as Democrats have scrutinized the Mueller probe.
He called the resolution a “travesty” and accused Democrats of searching for “some reason, any reason to impeach this president.”