WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — The House Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to authorize subpoenas so members of Congress can read the unredacted version of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report.
In a party-line vote, the committee gave the chairman the authority to subpoena the Justice Department for the report and all of the underlying evidence gathered during the two-year investigation into the Trump campaign.
Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. did not pull the trigger, yet. The subpoenas from the House Judiciary will likely come later this month after Attorney General William Barr is expected to release a redacted version of the report.
Barr indicated last week that he will not release the full 400-page report, prompting Democrats to dig in their heels for a lengthy political and legal fight.
In a letter to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, Barr said he planned to redact classified information, grand jury materials, information related to ongoing investigations and information that could violate the privacy and reputation of individuals named in the report.
Democrats argued the redactions were unacceptable and unprecedented. "The department is wrong to try to withhold that information from this committee," Nadler stated. "Congress is entitled to all the evidence."
Nadler said he is currently negotiating with Attorney General Barr to produce the documents. If those talks fail, he will bring the issue before a judge in the hopes of compelling the release of the redacted materials.
"We're going to work with the attorney general for a short period of time in the hope that he will reveal to us the entire Mueller report and the underlying materials. And we'll go to court to get permission to have the [grand jury] material," Nadler told reporters after the vote. "But if that doesn't work out in a very short order, we will issue the subpoenas."
In addition to the Mueller report, the Judiciary Committee is prepared to subpoena five former Trump White House figures, Don McGahn, Steve Bannon, Hope Hicks, Reince Priebus and Ann Donaldson.
Submitting a redacted report to Congress would be a departure from previous investigations where lawmakers were given full access to reports, underlying evidence and grand jury materials. In the Ken Starr independent counsel investigation of Bill Clinton and Leon Jaworski's special counsel investigation of Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal, Congress was provided all of the information.
However, the special counsel law changed after the 1999 Clinton impeachment and Starr report.
Under the revised statute, the special counsel is only required to provide the attorney general with a confidential report explaining any decisions to prosecute or decline prosecution. There is no obligation to provide Congress or the public with a full account. In his January confirmation hearing, Barr pledged to make public as much of the Mueller report as he could "consistent with the law."
Doug Collins of Georgia, the Republican ranking member on the Judiciary Committee argued that the Justice Department has the right to withhold its evidence from Congress, unless the chairman was willing to launch an impeachment investigation, as with Clinton or Nixon.
"If the chairman truly wanted to get at this information, then he can go to what I believe many in their heart desire, is open the impeachment inquiry," Collins said.
Leading Democrats have resisted calls for impeachment from their base and some of the party's more left-leaning members.
Chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, Mark Meadows of North Carolina, told SBG that the Democrats subpoena threat was "political theater."
"This is a 2020 subpoena. It's not a transparency subpoena," he argued. "This is all about politics. It really has nothing to do with getting to the truth."
WHAT COMES NEXT?
Congress could receive the redacted Mueller report as soon as next week. But that will be the beginning, not the end of the fight.
On Wednesday, both Republicans and Democrats signaled that they are prepared to take the next step and fight the Justice Department in court.
Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin stated he would be "happy" to be a co-plaintiff in a case demanding the release of grand jury material gathered in the Mueller investigation.
Sensenbrenner, who voted against subpoenaing the Justice Department, argued the resolution was "toothless" and that an attempt to enforce the subpoena would inevitably be tied up in litigation for years.
"The thing to do to put teeth into a subpoena is for Congress and this committee to go to court and ask for an order allowing for the release of the grand jury material," the congressman stated.
Otherwise, the Justice Department will quash the subpoena, Sensenbrenner continued, "and it will be in court for months and maybe years until the Supreme Court decides this issue because it's a dispute between the legislative and executive branches of government."
Democrats on the committee indicated they were open to Sensenbrenner's suggestion but hoped to negotiate with Attorney General Barr outside of court first and then move to issue subpoenas.
"This is the first step of the Judiciary Committee making certain we get the Mueller report and all the supporting documents," Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., told Sinclair Broadcast Group.
Both parties in Congress have expressed a strong desire to see the full report on the Trump campaign and alleged Russian collusion.
Last month, the House passed a resolution unanimously, 420 - 0, supporting the public release of the Mueller report. Many in the Senate hoped to pass a similar resolution but Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., blocked it from coming to the floor.
President Donald Trump originally supported the full release of the report after Barr issued a 4-page memo essentially clearing the president and the Trump campaign of conspiring with the Russian government. Trump claimed he was "totally exonerated."
This week, Trump appeared to change his tune, tweeting that Democrats' demands for full documentation were an attempt to relitigate the two-year investigation.
Even though the attorney general is not obligated to give lawmakers the underlying documents in the Mueller investigation, Congress does havevirtually unlimited authority to subpoena information from the executive branch.
House Republicans regularly exercised that authority and issued hundreds of subpoenas—with limited success—when they held the majority during the Obama and early Trump administration. In 2017, a handful of Republicans went so far as threatening to hold the deputy attorney general in contempt of Congress for failing to produce documents related to Hillary Clinton's email investigation.