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Contempt of Congress and what it means for William Barr, explained

Democrats are threatening to hold the attorney general in contempt of Congress. Here’s how that would work.

US Attorney General William Barr.
US Attorney General William Barr testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 1, 2019, on Capitol Hill.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

House Democrats are upping the ante in their attempt to get special counsel Robert Mueller’s full, unredacted report by threatening to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress.

Frustrated by weeks of missed subpoena deadlines and pushback from the Trump administration, the House Judiciary Committee will vote on a contempt resolution this Wednesday after Barr failed to deliver Mueller’s complete, unredacted report by a Monday deadline. The contempt resolution would also have to be approved by the full House — which may have a shot at passing now that an increasing number of Democrats are focusing their ire on Barr.

Barr’s main objection to releasing the full report is regulations that prohibit releasing grand jury material to members of Congress. The attorney general has offered Democrats a less redacted version of Mueller’s report, but they’ve so far rejected the offer. They want the full thing.

Contempt is another way for Congress to get subpoenaed documents, by asking the US attorney of the District of Columbia or the Department of Justice to charge Barr with criminal contempt for not complying with a congressional subpoena. In theory, a charge of contempt could result in a fine or jail time for the attorney general (though in reality, that likely won’t happen).

As serious as contempt sounds, it realistically won’t amount to more than Congress sending a powerful message — unless Democrats pass a different resolution to authorize suing Barr and the Trump administration to try to get the Mueller report.

“The Attorney General’s failure to comply with our subpoena, after extensive accommodation efforts, leaves us no choice but to initiate contempt proceedings in order to enforce the subpoena and access the full, unredacted report,” House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler (D-NY) said in a statement Monday.

It’s yet another sign that Barr is Democrats’ new political target. Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused Barr of lying to Congress by mischaracterizing Mueller’s report when he testified in front of a House committee last month.

“What is deadly serious about it is the attorney general of the United States of America was not telling the truth to the Congress of the United States,” Pelosi said at her weekly press conference Thursday. “That’s a crime.”

Democrats will now try to start the process of charging Barr with a crime. They may not be successful.

Here’s how contempt of Congress works

A House Judiciary Committee vote on a contempt of Congress citation isn’t coming out of nowhere; the Trump administration has blocked their subpoena for the Mueller report, as well as many other House subpoena requests.

Contempt of Congress citations are a tool the House or Senate can use in cases where their subpoena requests are repeatedly denied. Congress is essentially arguing that the executive branch is stonewalling and getting in the way of their ability to conduct their constitutionally obligated oversight.

But it’s crucial to remember Congress is just making another a request here — if a more strongly worded one. Actually getting the executive branch to comply can be difficult, precisely because the executive branch is the one with the power to prosecute the individual who isn’t complying with the subpoena request.

Here’s how Congressional Research Services legislative attorney Todd Garvey explains it in a recent summary:

First, the criminal contempt statute permits a single house of Congress to certify a contempt citation to the executive branch for the criminal prosecution of an individual who has willfully refused to comply with a committee subpoena. Once the contempt citation is received, any prosecution lies within the control of the executive branch.

Here’s how this will work on a practical level: If the full House passes the contempt resolution, Pelosi will issue the citation for Barr to be held in contempt. She’ll pass that citation along to the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia or the DOJ. Either the US attorney or the Department of Justice will likely say they don’t plan to move forward with prosecuting Barr.

That would be the end of the matter, unless Democrats pass a separate resolution to authorize going to court with Barr and the Trump administration over the Mueller report, and getting the courts to decide their subpoena request and contempt citation.

That itself is risky. If a judge rules against Congress and in favor of the Trump administration, it could set new legal precedent that could make it easier for future presidential administrations to withhold information from future Congressional committees.

But if the court rules in Democrats’ favor, it could strengthen the legal standing of Congress and could compel the Trump administration to comply with the subpoenas, with more serious consequences for noncompliant officials. For instance, a judge could hold administration officials in contempt of court, rather than contempt of Congress.

Congress’s inherent contempt power, explained

Congress technically has another option that gives it much more power to prosecute noncompliant individuals, called inherent contempt power. But the lawmakers probably won’t use it.

The contempt of Congress citation the House will vote on this week is very different from inherent contempt power: Congress’s ability to arrest or jail people who don’t comply with subpoena requests.

As Garvey explained in his summary, this is how Congress used to make sure people complied with its subpoena requests if they refused, beginning in the 1850s and ending in the 1930s. Congress can do this (the Supreme Court has upheld its ability to do so), but it hasn’t since the 1930s because, well, throwing people in jail is a bit harsh:

Upon adopting a House or Senate resolution authorizing the execution of an arrest warrant by that chamber’s Sergeant-at-Arms, the individual alleged to have engaged in contemptuous conduct is taken into custody and brought before the House or Senate. A hearing or “trial” follows in which allegations are heard and defenses raised.

If judged guilty, the House or Senate may then direct that the witness be detained or imprisoned until the obstruction to the exercise of legislative power is removed.

As Garvey writes, Congress detaining these people isn’t meant to be a form of punishment so much as added incentive to produce the information more quickly.

Lately, some Democrats have been talking about it as a way to put some more teeth into their subpoena requests.

“We have the power to detain and incarcerate,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA), a member of the House Oversight Committee, recently told reporters. “We don’t use it. ... Doesn’t mean we can’t, and I’m all for reviving it.”

When asked where Congress would put members of the Trump administration, Connolly pointed to DC’s jail.

“We have, as you know, jurisdiction over the District of Columbia,” he said. “And they have a beautiful jail with plenty of room. So I think that would be just perfect for some of these people to contemplate their actions and judgment.”

To be clear, there’s no indication that Democrats are ready to revive their inherent contempt power for Barr. The attorney general is likely not headed to jail, especially if the department he oversees is in charge of deciding whether to prosecute him. What matters now is if Democrats decide to pursue a court case against the attorney general and if a judge holds him in contempt of court instead.

Passing a contempt of Congress citation is just the first step.

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