U.S. House votes to take Trump subpoena fights to court

President Donald J. Trump talks to members of the press on the South Lawn of the White House Thursday, May 30, 2019, prior to boarding Marine One to begin his trip to Colorado. | Official White House Photos by Joyce N. Boghosian, Flickr

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House on Tuesday approved Democrats’ measure to make it easier for lawmakers to take legal action against President Trump administration officials who defy congressional subpoenas.

The resolution — which passed 229-191 along party lines — specifically allows lawsuits against Attorney General William Barr and former White House counsel Don McGahn, both of whom defied subpoenas issued by the House Judiciary Committee in relation to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe.

Justin Amash | Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons

Michigan’s delegation was split down the middle on party lines, 7-7. Even libertarian-leaning U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Cascade Twp.), who has called for Trump’s impeachment, voted no.

More broadly, the measure allows committee leaders to file lawsuits that aim to enforce subpoenas, even without a full U.S. House vote, if they have approval from a bipartisan group of leaders of the chamber.

The move appears to mark a strategic shift for U.S. House Democrats as they spar with a GOP president who has vowed to fight “all the subpoenas.” Instead of pursuing criminal contempt against Barr and McGahn — which would be referred to the U.S. Justice Department and likely quashed — House Democrats are looking instead toward the courts.

House Democrats — including the leaders of committees conducting oversight of the administration — portrayed the measure as an important tool for nudging a “stonewalling” president.

Committee chairman Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) speaks to members of the media after Michael Cohen, former attorney and fixer for President Donald Trump, testified before the House Oversight Committee on Capitol Hill February 27, 2019 | Alex Wong/Getty Images

“The Trump administration is engaged in one of the most unprecedented cover-ups since Watergate,” said U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee. “It’s not just about Russia; it is so much broader than that.”

Cummings said that in all of his committee’s investigations, “the White House has not produced one single shred of paper in response to our requests.”

Cummings’ committee is slated to vote on Wednesday to hold Barr and U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress over defying subpoenas related to a possible citizenship question on the 2020 census.

U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), chair of the House Financial Services Committee that has sought Trump’s financial documents, accused the administration of “unprecedented stonewalling.”

She said of Trump, “Who does he think he is, a dictator?”

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U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said on the House floor ahead of the vote Tuesday, “When a congressional committee issues a subpoena, compliance is not optional.”

Nadler on Monday announced he had reached a deal with the Justice Department to secure evidence underlying Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report, and would be holding the “criminal contempt process in abeyance for now.” Nadler’s committee previously voted to hold Barr in contempt for refusing to hand over an unredacted version of the Mueller report.

U.S. Capitol | Creative Commons

House Republicans, however, accused Democrats of continuing to waste time on investigating Trump in an attempt to score political points.

“It is clear to me that the Democrats are trying to influence the 2020 presidential election at taxpayer expense,” said U.S. Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.), a member of the Judiciary Committee.

Virginia U.S. Rep. Ben Cline, a freshman Republican who joined that committee in January, said he’s been frustrated by the “circus” he’s witnessed there in recent months as Democrats have scrutinized the Mueller probe.

He called the resolution a “travesty” and accused Democrats of searching for “some reason, any reason to impeach this president.”  

Robin Bravender
Michigan native Robin Bravender is the DC Bureau Chief for the Newsroom, a consortium of 10 nonprofit news publications, including the Michigan Advance. Previously, Robin was a reporter for Politico, E&E News and Thomson Reuters.

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