WASHINGTON – The House Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to authorize a subpoena for special counsel Robert Mueller’s full report and the evidence his investigators gathered, setting up what could be a historic legal clash with the Justice Department.
The panel also voted to authorize subpoenas for evidence from some of President Donald Trump’s former top advisers, including strategist Steve Bannon, communications director Hope Hicks, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, White House counsel Donald McGahn and counsel Ann Donaldson.
The committee did not issue the subpoena immediately. Instead, the vote gave Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., the authority to do so in the future, the first step by Congress to force Attorney General William Barr to release Mueller’s entire confidential report about Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The committee approved the subpoena by a party-line vote of 24-17.
Nadler said Mueller's report “probably isn’t the ‘total exoneration’ the president claims it to be,” so Congress must review the whole thing. He said the Justice Department should not seek to withhold parts of it, as Barr has said he plans to do.
“We are dealing now not with the president’s private affairs, but with a sustained attack on the integrity of the republic by the president and his closest advisers,” Nadler said. “This committee requires the full report and the underlying materials because it is our job, not the attorney general’s, to determine whether President Trump has abused his office.”
Mueller completed his investigation and submitted his report to Barr on March 22. Barr said the investigation did not establish that Trump or his campaign had coordinated with efforts by the Russian government to influence the 2016 election. Mueller declined to draw a conclusion about whether Trump had obstructed justice during the investigation; instead, Barr said he and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, concluded based on the evidence Mueller gathered that the president had not.
Trump, who has endorsed the release of Mueller's report, appeared more cautious in recent days. He told reporters Tuesday that Democrats would never be satisfied by Mueller's conclusion that the investigation did not establish a conspiracy involving his campaign, calling it "politics at a very low level."
“Anything you give them, it will never be enough,” Trump said. “They'll always come back and say it's not enough, it's not enough.”
Barr has told lawmakers that he and other Justice Department officials are examining the nearly 400-page report, plus tables and appendices, to remove grand jury evidence, intelligence material, evidence that could affect other cases and information that could infringe on the privacy of people who weren’t charged. Barr said he expected to give Congress his redacted version of the report by mid-April.
Nadler said he would not issue the subpoenas to Barr immediately but instead "will give him time to change his mind" on releasing grand jury material. He said he expected to subpoena the report "in very short order."
Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the committee, said Democrats set an arbitrary deadline to receive the Mueller report from Barr and then demanded material that the law does not allow to be shared outside the Justice Department.
"In the face of laws and rules he finds inconvenient, the chairman demands our nation’s top law enforcement official break the law instead of supporting him in enforcing it," Collins said. "This is reckless. It’s irresponsible. It’s disingenuous."
The meeting began testily, with Collins forcing Nadler to have his amended resolution read for the committee.
“I really wish we could work on big issues rather than on this circus of undermining the president of the United States,” said Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz.
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., said he wants to read Mueller's report rather than Barr's redacted version, because he was among the “fire-throwers” who expected explosive results from Mueller’s report.
“I want to find out if I was wrong, and I want the public to see it, too,” Cohen said.
After giving Barr a Tuesday deadline to give Congress Mueller’s full report, Nadler is moving to force Barr’s hand. Nadler cited precedents in investigations involving former presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, in which prosecutors turned over grand jury materials. Nadler held up thick volumes of evidence from the Clinton investigation, citing grand jury testimony on page 3,341.
"The same type of evidence has to be produced here," Nadler said.
Nadler also said the Justice Department released 880,000 pages of internal investigative records in July 2018 about the investigation of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and thousands of pages dealing with the Russian investigation that Mueller took over. The records included highly sensitive information including applications for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants, classified documents and deliberative material of the FBI and Justice Department, he said.
Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., a former prosecutor, suggested the committee drop its demand for grand jury information, but his proposal failed in a party-line vote.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said the Justice Department probably would move to block the subpoena, a battle that could take months or years before being resolved at the Supreme Court. Instead, he said Congress should ask a federal court for an order releasing grand jury evidence – an effort he offered to join – as happened in the Nixon and Clinton investigations.
“The chairman and his supporters are putting the cart before the horse,” Sensenbrenner said. “I think we all want to get to the bottom of this.”
The fight over releasing the full Mueller report is already in federal court. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a request Monday to U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell to authorize public release of any grand jury material that is “cited, quoted or referenced” in Mueller’s report to Barr.
“The calls for transparency are broad and bipartisan," said Katie Townsend, the committee’s legal director. "The president himself has said the report should be made public. We agree.”