On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee voted Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress for his refusal to turn over the full, unredacted report regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election produced by special counsel Robert Mueller.
BIG deal! Barr’s in real trouble now, right?
He is not.
There are actual punishments for being in contempt of Congress – the Senate or House sergeant at arms can detain the contemptuous person! – but, in practical terms, none of them will be visited upon the attorney general. He’s not going to be jailed for not turning over the full Mueller report – which he says he can’t legally do because it contains grand jury testimony that is illegal to make public without the permission of the witnesses. And even if Congress did ask the White House to authorize a criminal contempt charge for Barr, there’s roughly a 0% chance that President Donald Trump would agree to it.
Bill Barr’s life after this contempt citation will be the exact same as it was before the Judiciary Committee vote. If anything, his standing in the eyes of Trump will be bolstered. Trump has never understood – or tried to understand – the role Congress plays in our tripartite system of government. He views Congress’ attempts at oversight as a nuisance at best and a willful undermining of his presidency at worst.
So why did Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-New York, spend time working to pass a toothless measure? For two reasons:
1) Base service. Nadler wants the liberal base to know he is holding the administration’s collective feet to the fire.
2) Legal positioning: Nadler knew the contempt citation wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. But he also knew that by moving to hold Barr in contempt, he would likely force the the White House’s hand one way or another.
And he did! In the moments before Nadler’s committee held its contempt vote, the White House declared executive privilege over the entire Mueller report.
“Faced with Chairman Nadler’s blatant abuse of power, and at the attorney general’s request, the President has no other option than to make a protective assertion of executive privilege,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement explaining the move.
(The White House argument, like that of Republicans on Judiciary, is that Barr cannot legally release grand jury testimony – and, by complying with Nadler’s request, he would be doing so.)
“Chairman Nadler is asking the Attorney General of the United States to break the law and commit a crime by releasing information that he knows he has no legal authority to have,” Sanders added.
The declaration of executive privilege represents a significant ramping-up of already ramped-up tensions between the White House and Congress. All of this comes hard on the news earlier this week that the Treasury Department would not comply with a request for Trump’s tax returns from House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Massachusetts. It also follows Trump’s tweet that he didn’t think Mueller should testify before Congress about his report and the White House’s instruction to former counsel Don McGahn to not comply with Democratic requests to testify about his role in the Russia probe.
It remains unclear what impact the executive privilege claim will have on the ongoing congressional investigations – although Nadler signaled on “New Day” Wednesday that such a move could complicate the prospect of Mueller testifying. “Well, now that the President has said what he said, I’m less confident than I was,” Nadler said of the special counsel appearing before his committee.
Today, then, like lots of days of late in political Washington, was lots of sound and fury signifying, if not nothing, then TBD.
There is little question we are headed for a dramatic legal showdown over the proper oversight role for Congress to play – and Wednesday’s hearing was a scene in that broader play. But don’t expect to see Bill Barr in manacles anytime soon.
CORRECTION: This headline has been updated to reflect that Barr was voted in contempt of Congress by the House Judiciary Committee.