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Contempt Vote Escalates Tension Between Congressional Democrats And Trump


What does a House committee do now? The committee voted to hold the attorney general in contempt of Congress for failing to turn over a complete document. The committee chairman is Jerry Nadler.


JERRY NADLER: This was a very grave and momentous step that we were forced to take today to move a contempt citation against the attorney general of the United States. We did not relish doing this, but we have no choice.

INSKEEP: The Trump administration is claiming executive privilege and refusing the demand to turn over the complete report by Robert Mueller into Russia's election interference in 2016. So let's work through what could happen next. Jonathan Shaub worked in the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department and is now assistant solicitor general in Tennessee and is following all this.

Good morning, sir.

JONATHAN SHAUB: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: So Chairman Nadler called this a constitutional crisis. Is it?

SHAUB: It's not unprecedented. The same action - Attorney General Holder was held in contempt in the last Congress. So I don't know that I would call it a crisis, but it is certainly heading that way, it seems.

INSKEEP: We have two branches of government with opposite points of view. Suppose the full House follows up on the committee vote and holds William Barr in contempt as the representative of the Trump administration. How can the House enforce this, if at all?

SHAUB: Well, it doesn't have a lot of good options, to be honest. The House has a power called inherent contempt, where it could actually send - it used to exercise it over a hundred years ago, where it would actually send the sergeant at arms to go arrest the individual who had it held in contempt. But it hasn't exercised that, and it's very unlikely that would happen here. Much more likely is that the House will file a civil lawsuit just like it did against Attorney General Holder.

The executive branch and Congress have long had very different constitutional views about their authority and very different - almost opposite in terms of who's got the authority to resist and what information has to be turned over. And the only branch that can really resolve it will be the judicial branch. They just haven't had the opportunity because the proceedings have taken so long, except in the Watergate case - in the Nixon case, where Supreme Court held that the president had to turn over the tapes.

That's really the only precedent. There's a couple other smaller cases, but that's the main one that still guides the branches today.

INSKEEP: I want to figure out, though, if something unusual is happening here. You noted that Attorney General Holder was held in contempt by the full House. You noted the case of Watergate. But is it true that, generally speaking, an administration answers the subpoenas of Congress and that it's rare that the administration would resist so many different demands, as this administration is doing?

SHAUB: I think the - historically, what the practice has been - that the executive branch will turn over some information, not all, usually. And Congress will protect some of its confidentiality interests and things like classified information. So the two branches have really worked together to find a way to meet Congress's needs without exposing things that are sensitive material about criminal investigations or classified information.

So it would be unusual for an administration to say, we're not answering anything. And I think the administration - there's been some talk of that. There's also been some things that have been turned over, so it's not quite clear how far they're going to go there.

INSKEEP: So if they negotiate, we're still within normal civil bounds here.

SHAUB: I think that's right.

INSKEEP: Mr. Shaub, thanks so much - really appreciate it.

SHAUB: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: He is assistant solicitor general of the state of Tennessee and once worked as an attorney in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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