Conservatives in the House of Representatives are making a push to hold Attorney General Jeff Sessions in contempt of Congress for failing to hand over documents related to the Russia investigation, but a senior White House official said Monday evening the administration is backing Sessions.
“I think we are supportive of our Cabinet,” White House legislative affairs director Marc Short told CNN, though he acknowledged Hill “frustration” with the Justice Department over records.
Short would not say if the Justice Department should hand over the documents but when asked if the House should back off, he added again: “I think we are supportive of our Cabinet.”
The fight has sparked concern among Democrats – and some Republicans – that Trump allies on Capitol Hill are seeking to interfere with special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, believing a contempt resolution could be used by Trump as a pretext to fire Sessions and install a new attorney general who is not recused from the investigation. Short’s comments are a notable contrast from the White House with Trump’s extensive, public criticism of the Justice Department and Sessions specifically.
House Speaker Paul Ryan also appears noncommittal so far of the effort by House Intelligence Committee Chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, to hold Sessions in contempt.
“This is not something the chairman has discussed with the speaker,” AshLee Strong, spokeswoman for Ryan, said Monday when asked if the speaker supported the effort.
Nunes launched the latest contempt threat to Sessions on Sunday on “Fox and Friends,” and sources tell CNN that House Republicans want to hold a vote over the next several days.
The clash over records involves a “specific individual,” according to a letter obtained by CNN, and it relates to the Russia investigation – which Sessions is recused from.
Nunes has called the request “very important,” but the Justice Department says turning over the materials could risk lives and sources, and could compromise ongoing criminal investigations.
Speaking in San Diego, California, on Monday, Sessions said the Justice Department has told Nunes his request goes too far but that the department would be willing to talk about to him about it.
“The Department of Justice has written him a letter and responded as appropriate to him. The request he’s made is one that the intelligence communities and Department of Justice feels is not grantable,” Sessions said. “We have explained that we would like – we would be willing to talk to him about it before, the details of which I couldn’t discuss.”
In a rare gaggle with reporters at the Capitol on Monday night, Nunes said he heard Sessions’ response, adding that a time is being worked out for them to talk but it won’t be as soon as Monday night. Nunes also said he doesn’t think the White House and the Justice Department are on the same page over the issue, despite Short’s comments, and said he hadn’t spoken to Ryan about holding Sessions in contempt. Nunes also disputed the characterization that his comments to Fox on Sunday amounted to a threat.
“It wasn’t a threat,” Nunes said. “It’s what’s going to happen.”
In the past, Ryan and the White House have backed Nunes’ document requests, resulting in lawmakers being given access to a significant amount of classified materials.
In this latest dust-up, the department has offered to discuss whether there are other ways to accommodate Nunes’ request, but it has yet to hear from the California Republican, according to a source familiar with the matter.
Rep. Mike Conaway, the Texas Republican who led the House’s Russia investigation, said it was “premature” to be discussing contempt.
“We expect our subpoenas to be complied with and we’ll see what happens,” he said.
But Rep. Chris Stewart, a Utah Republican on the Intelligence panel, said he was open to contempt if it was necessary to obtain the information.
“I would support whatever tools we have available,” Stewart said. “There’s no reason in the world for this information not to be available.”
Stewart pointed to the initial redactions of former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony on Michael Flynn’s FBI interview in the House GOP’s Russia report. The information was declassified in the latest version of the report, and Stewart said it was another sign of the administration using redactions to protect the FBI.
Ohio GOP Rep. Brad Wenstrup also backed Nunes, emphasizing that Congress has oversight over the Justice Department.
“If we’re going to be a government of the people, then the people that represent the people have oversight over these agencies,” Wenstrup said. “We have subpoena power. They should respond to the subpoena,” he added. “Or else how can we really tell the American people what’s going on in the government?”
CNN’s Ashley Killough contributed to this report.