The Trump administration has repeatedly frustrated congressional Democrats by defying a slew of subpoenas issued by House committees seeking everything from the unredacted Mueller report on the Russia probe, to the president’s tax returns.
The volume and intensity of the standoffs between the legislation and executive branches haven’t been seen since the Watergate era, when President Richard Nixon was in the White House, veteran lawmakers said.
Republicans said it amounts to “presidential harassment,” but Democrats are openly asking what they can do to hold the president accountable.
The threat of jail? Possible fines? Or, is it impeachment, which some feel lawmakers should pursue, but which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has cautioned against?
“Impeachment is one of the most divisive things that you can do, dividing a country, unless you really have (made) your case with great clarity for the American people,” Pelosi said last week.
One option getting a closer look from some Democrats is less widely known: inherent contempt.
It is different than the type of contempt the House Judiciary Committee has recommended against Attorney General William Barr, which the full House still plans to vote on. That contempt involves a civil lawsuit that asks a court to enforce a subpoena.
Inherent contempt relies on Congress itself to enforce its own authority. It was used for close to 150 years, with the House or Senate Sergeant-At-Arms taking action.
“It directs the Sergeant-At-Arms to arrest somebody who is not complying, bring them to Washington and detain them,” Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said in an interview with WTOP. “The House can also fine somebody and jail them for defiance of a duly issued subpoena.”
Connolly is among Democrats who say the enforcement should be seriously considered, given that President Donald Trump has indicated he has no intention of responding to subpoenas as his predecessors have in the past.
Connolly points out that the House could also use inherent contempt in the case of an attorney, such as former White House counsel Don McGahn. He could be threatened with being disbarred if he fails to comply with a subpoena, Connolly said.
McGahn has defied a subpoena from the House Judiciary Committee for documents linked to the Russia investigation, at the behest of the White House.
Connolly said Democrats should not seek to jail the attorney general, which members of both parties agree would never happen. But, he said the House should send a message to other current and former administration officials for what he called their “reckless defiance” of lawful subpoenas.
“Now you’re in a constitutional confrontation that we need to rise to,” Connolly said, noting that lawmakers are still waiting for the unredacted Mueller report and its underlying evidence. “We need to protect the Constitution of the United States.”
Republicans are critical of Democrats, saying they’re just trying to drag out matters for political reasons. They also point out that a select group of Democratic leaders could read a less redacted version of the report, if they chose to, which has been made available to them.
More deadlines for congressional subpoenas, meanwhile, are looming. But, it’s unclear what will happen if the White House continues to ignore them.
The House Ways and Means Committee has set a May 17 deadline for a subpoena related to the president’s tax returns. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin recently declined to turn them over, saying lawmakers didn’t have a legitimate reason to obtain them.
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