By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee voted on Wednesday 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 – authorized the panel’s chairman, Jerrold Nadler, to subpoena Mueller’s material. The measure also authorized Nadler, a Democrat, to subpoena documents and testimony from five former Trump aides, including former political advisor 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 share a redacted copy of the nearly 400-page report with Congress and the public by mid-April.
Democrats fear that Barr could use redactions to suppress evidence of potential misconduct by Trump 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.”
Barr’s March 24 summary of the Mueller report said the special counsel did not establish that Trump campaign officials conspired with Russia during the presidential 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 obstruction criminal charges against the president.
Trump has denied collusion with Russia and obstruction of justice. Moscow says it did not try to interfere in the election, even though U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that it secretly trying to sway U.S. voters in Trump’s favour.
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.
But it is not clear if the Justice Department would simply hand over all the documents they now seek. The department could ignore the subpoena, running the risk of being held in contempt of Congress, and prepare for a potentially lengthy battle in the courts.
Democrats have pledged to fight all the way to the U.S. 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.
It was not clear when Nadler might start issuing subpoenas, if authorized to do so.
“I will give him (Barr) time to change his mind. But if we cannot reach an accommodation, then we will have no choice but to issue subpoenas,” the New York Democrat said.
Trump took a dig on Tuesday at Nadler and House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff, one of the president’s strongest critics in Congress about the Russia investigation.
The president wrote on Twitter, “There is no amount of testimony or document production that can satisfy Jerry Nadler or Shifty Adam Schiff. It is now time to focus exclusively on properly running our great Country!”
Republicans contend that Barr is being transparent under Justice Department regulations adopted after former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment in the 1990s, which 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.
“He (Nadler) is picking the fight because fighting makes good headlines, and because his caucus (other Democratic lawmakers) is desperate for dirt on this president,” said Representative Doug Collins, top Republican on the panel.
The committee met to consider the subpoena resolution after Nadler and five other Democratic House oversight committee chairs wrote to Barr, giving him one last chance to produce an unredacted Mueller report.
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.
The five former Trump aides 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.
(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Alistair Bell and Will Dunham)