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House Panel Plans Contempt Vote For Barr Over Mueller Report

May 7, 2019
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The House Judiciary Committee, led by Democrats, will vote tomorrow to recommend that the House hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt. This comes after Barr failed to comply with a congressional subpoena demanding the full, unredacted Mueller report. For its part, the Justice Department has indicated it wants to negotiate to avoid contempt proceedings. So what is behind this back-and-forth? Well, let's ask a Democrat on the committee. Congressman Ted Deutch of Florida joins us.

Good morning, Congressman.

TED DEUTCH: Good morning, David - good to be with you.

GREENE: Well, thanks for taking the time. What do you accomplish by holding an attorney general in contempt?

DEUTCH: Well, we're moving forward on this so that Congress can do its job. We have three coequal branches of government. And the president and the attorney general have failed to work with us to allow us to do our job when we know from the Muller report that there was a sweeping Russian attack on our election. We know that there were repeated attempts by the Trump campaign to obstruct justice. And we know that there is information that we need in order to fully investigate all of the redactions.

And we're simply trying to get that information, which is exactly the way that the process should work. This contempt proceeding is the only way at this point, because of the attorney general's failure to cooperate, that we're going to be able to get this on behalf of the American people.

GREENE: So when Republicans did the same thing to President Obama's attorney general, Eric Holder, I mean, the Obama White House at the time said that a vote like this was political theater instead of actually doing real oversight. I mean, is this vote really as valuable as trying to get the full, unredacted Mueller report and do other types of oversight in different ways?

DEUTCH: Well, actually, this vote is necessary in order for us to get the full, unredacted Mueller report. I think everyone understands that Congress needs this information, that the American people deserve to know all of the facts. And that's all we're trying to do. There is every effort to work with the attorney general. I know that his team is going to be meeting with Chairman Nadler's folks again today, hopefully to come up with an accommodation that will allow us to get all of this information so that we can act on this.

There was this serious attack on our democracy. And there is every reason to believe, David, that we're going to see it again in 2020. We need to know what was uncovered so that we can protect America and protect our democracy.

GREENE: I guess I wonder - I mean, you have a Justice Department that has expressed willingness to negotiate. Is the best way to negotiate sort of holding this threat of contempt over the head of the attorney general? Or might it be more - a better way to go about this - would the Justice Department be more willing to work with you if you're not, you know, holding this public vote?

DEUTCH: Well, sure. There are absolutely better ways to accomplish this, and we've tried all of them. We've - if you remember - and the listeners know this. We've tried from the moment the report came out to - since before it came out - to make clear that we deserve the full, unredacted report in order for us to do our job. And despite our requests and despite the ongoing conversations with the Justice Department, the attorney general of the United States simply has refused to turn it over. This isn't our first choice. This is what's necessary at this point because the Justice Department and the president's hand-picked attorney general have refused to cooperate. That's why this is necessary tomorrow.

GREENE: But just to be clear - I mean, if you got indications from Justice that they were willing to start talking about, you know, a full, unredacted report and have those negotiations, you might back off on this vote.

DEUTCH: Well, of course. We don't want to have to go forward on contempt charges. What we do is - what we want is for the full report to be delivered. And I know there will be more discussions today. And I hope we can avoid holding the attorney general of the United States in contempt. But he needs to recognize that Congress is a coequal branch of government and that the House needs this information so that we can do our job and secure our democracy and make sure that no one is above the law.

GREENE: Congressman Ted Deutch is a Democrat from the state of Florida, member of the House Judiciary Committee.

Congressman, thanks so much.

DEUTCH: Of course. Thanks, David.

GREENE: All right. I want to bring in NPR's Kelsey Snell, who covers Congress. She's been listening along with us.

Hi, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

GREENE: So tell me what's happening here. What is the actual impact of holding an attorney general in contempt?

SNELL: Well, the congressman said that they need to do this in order to compel the Justice Department to comply with their request to release the unredacted portions of the Mueller report.

GREENE: Right.

SNELL: But, you know, it might actually just wind up being mostly symbolic. That's kind of how it's worked in the past. And so they may, if they want to get that information, still have to go to court if they want to get the information that they're asking for. And if this is symbolic, this then becomes a really big political move and a signaling move in that way.

GREENE: So if Democrats know that this could be purely symbolic, is there still an argument in their mind that it's worth doing this to send some kind of message?

SNELL: Yeah, absolutely. Democrats had been trying to send their base, their voters, the message that they are willing to be tough on this administration and trying to send the administration the message that they don't get to set the terms for how Democrats are going to investigate the Trump administration. They want to be able to make it clear that they aren't going to let them set the terms and let them decide who will answer questions and who will not.

Now, holding the attorney general in contempt is a really big and really public way to say that Democrats really aren't going to back down, even if, say, the president decides he doesn't want to comply with any of the requests that they have on any of the investigative fronts. You know, we're not just talking about the Russia investigation here. They're also looking into his - the president's business dealings and even his tax returns.

GREENE: So if Democrats do go forward with this, I mean, what do we expect from the Department of Justice in terms of responding?

SNELL: Well, we've already heard from the Justice Department that they believe that it isn't legal for Barr to comply with the request. They're saying that he has given them all that they can give them and that if they want more information, they - the Justice Department has offered a closed-door opportunity for Democrats to go and look at the unredacted portions. But, you know, Democrats say that's not enough. They want everything that they see to also be seen by the public.

GREENE: Could this have some kind of impact on another looming question, which is whether or not Bob Mueller actually testifies in Congress?

SNELL: That is really the big question that nobody has seemed to be able to answer because it comes down to whether or not the White House is going to intervene here. So far, the attorney general has not changed his tune from several weeks ago when he told our own Carrie Johnson that he would - had no objections to Mueller testifying before Congress. And, you know, they want to try and do that in the next week. And if this continues at pace, it may change the kind of relationship between Democrats and the Justice Department. But that's yet to be seen.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Kelsey Snell covers Congress for us.

Kelsey, thanks so much.

SNELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.