By MARY CLARE JALONICK and LISA MASCARO, The Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House invoked executive privilege Wednesday, claiming the right to block lawmakers from the full report from special counsel Robert Mueller on his Trump-Russia probe and escalating the battle between President Donald Trump and Congress.
The administration’s decision was announced just as the House Judiciary Committee was gaveling in to consider holding Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress over failure to release the full report.
Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York declared the action by Trump’s Justice Department was a clear new sign of the president’s “blanket defiance” of Congress’ constitutional rights. “Every day we learn of new efforts by this administration to stonewall Congress,” Nadler said. “This is unprecedented.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said the action was rather a response to the “blatant abuse of power” by Democratic Rep. Nadler.
“Neither the White House nor Attorney General Barr will comply with Chairman Nadler’s unlawful and reckless demands,” she said.
In a letter Wednesday to Trump , Barr explained that the special counsel’s files contain millions of pages of classified and unclassified information. He said it was the committee’s “abrupt resort to a contempt vote” that “has not allowed sufficient time for you to consider fully whether to make a conclusive assertion of executive privilege.”
Barr told Trump the president he should assert privilege now, “pending a full decision on the matter.”
Democrats on the committee said the Trump administration was trampling on Congress’s duty to conduct oversight.
“This is a moment in history,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas. “The president now seeks to take a wrecking ball to the Constitution of the United States.”
But the top Republican on the panel, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, called the majority’s decision to push ahead with a contempt resolution “cynical, mean-spirited, counterproductive and irresponsible.”
Nadler said earlier Wednesday the Trump administration’s refusal to provide special counsel Robert Mueller’s full Russia report to Congress presents a “constitutional crisis,” leaving the panel no choice but to move forward with a contempt vote against Barr.
Talks with the Justice Department broke down late Tuesday over the committee’s subpoena for an unredacted version of the report.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested Democrats were surprised by the department’s decision as last-minute talks failed late Tuesday.
She said if the committee approves contempt resolution, as is expected, the “next step” would be eventual consideration by the full House.
Barr released a redacted version of Mueller’s report to the public last month, but Democrats said they want to see the full document, along with underlying evidence, and subpoenaed the full report . The department has rejected that demand, while allowing a handful of lawmakers to view a version of Mueller’s report with fewer redactions. Democrats have said they won’t view that version until they get broader access.
Executive privilege is the president’s power to keep information from the courts, Congress and the public to protect the confidentiality of the Oval Office decision-making process.
The top Republican on the panel, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, sharply criticized the Democrats’ plan to go ahead with the vote.