House Democrats have had enough with another member of President Donald Trump’s administration flouting oversight requests: On Friday, they launched contempt of Congress proceedings against Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-NY) cited Pompeo’s noncooperation with Trump’s impeachment inquiry, his speech this week at the Republican National Convention, and his promotion of “a Senate Republican-led smear against the president’s political rivals,” which represented an “alarming” disregard for laws over his own conduct.
Drafting a resolution is the first step in a process that could ultimately conclude with the House voting to hold Pompeo in contempt of Congress. While that is serious, it essentially boils down to another, more strongly worded request, and would take future court action to get the executive branch to comply. House Democrats have already voted to hold other administration officials in contempt in the past over the census citizenship question.
The final straw with Pompeo seemed to be a fight over impeachment-related documents given to two Senate committees. Last month, Engel subpoenaed Pompeo for documents purportedly related to the Bidens and Ukrainian energy company Burisma Holdings that the State Department already provided to the Republican-controlled committees on finance and on homeland security, in addition to related communications. The deadline for the request was August 7, which the department missed.
“The Secretary’s ongoing defiance of two duly authorized subpoenas on matters directly linked to American foreign policy toward Ukraine has left the Committee no further option but to begin drafting a resolution finding Secretary Pompeo in contempt of Congress,” according to a statement released Friday by Engel, who has continued to investigate the State Department after losing his primary to challenger Jamaal Bowman in June.
A State Department spokesperson told CNN Friday that the documents sought by the House were already given to ranking Senate Democrats, calling Engel’s statement “political theatrics.”
“The House Foreign Affairs Committee is seeking documents which the State Department has already produced to Senate Democrats. We have previously offered to provide copies of these documents to Chairman Engel, with the only condition being that he send a letter explaining what foreign policy issue he is investigating that requires these documents. Once this letter is received, the Department will produce the documents. This press release is political theatrics and is an unfortunate waste of taxpayer resources,” the spokesperson told CNN.
At issue seems to be the phrasing — or intent — of the request. In a letter to Engel earlier this week, the State Department’s Ryan Kaldahl, the acting assistant secretary for legislative affairs, said Senate Republicans’ request for documents included a “clear statement of purpose.”
That purpose: to “better understand what actions, if any, the Obama administration took to ensure that policy decisions relating to Ukraine and [Ukrainian energy company] Burisma were not improperly influenced by the employment and financial interests” of Joe Biden’s family members. Or, as Engel responded Friday: “Pompeo will give the committee what we were seeking if we join a smear of the president’s political rival.”
House Democrats have pursued contempt charges against Trump administration officials before
This is not the first time House Democrats have launched contempt charges against administration officials for refusing to comply with subpoena requests. In July 2019, the full House of Representatives voted 230-198 to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in criminal contempt from the House Oversight Committee for failing to respond to a subpoena over the census citizenship question.
In the census question case, House Democrats were seeking to learn the reasoning behind the question’s inclusion. In return, the administration claimed sweeping executive privilege to refuse records requests.
A Supreme Court ruling in June 2019 meant that the question did not appear on the census, but House investigators continue to be frustrated with the administration’s refusal to cooperate since Democrats took over the chamber in the 2018 midterms.
While the House passed the criminal referral in 2019, it actually amounted to another, albeit more forceful, request for records. As Vox’s Ella Nilsen explained, “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”:
A contempt vote is one way for Congress to get subpoenaed documents, by asking the US attorney for 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).
In Barr and Ross’s case, it was still up to the executive branch whether to comply. The same will also be true for Pompeo and the State Department.