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Is showdown over Mueller report becoming a constitutional crisis?

The showdown between the White House and Congress over the Mueller report is escalating even further. House Democrats took initial steps to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt Wednesday, with House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler calling the decision "grave and momentous." Lisa Desjardins reports and joins Judy Woodruff and Yamiche Alcindor to discuss.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    There is an escalating showdown between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, and both sides are digging in their heels.

    The chairman of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee says it has today taken a grave and momentous step.

    Lisa Desjardins begins our coverage of the mounting clash over access to the entire Mueller report.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Today, power moves in an escalating fight between branches.

  • REP. JERROLD NADLER (D-NY):

    The Judiciary Committee will please come to order.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    House Democrats called a rare hearing, the first step toward holding the attorney general in contempt of Congress. Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler pointed to refusals to testify or to hand over an unredacted Mueller report.

  • REP. JERROLD NADLER:

    The Trump administration has taken obstruction of Congress to new heights.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Simultaneously, the Trump administration made its own statement. The Department of Justice sent Nadler a letter saying the contempt vote was unnecessary and that the president is exerting protective executive privilege over the documents Democrats want, meaning the agency will not turn them over.

    That raised already heated temperatures at the Capitol.

  • REP. SHEILA JACKSON LEE (D-TX):

    I can only conclude the president seeks to take a wrecking ball to the Constitution of the United States of America. For the first time in the history of the United States, a president is now exerting executive privilege over every aspect of life.

  • REP. CEDRIC RICHMOND (D-LA):

    Unfortunately, we have an administration that is choosing to have a temper tantrum that is designed to accomplish one thing. And that one thing is to never let the real facts of the Mueller report come to light.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Republicans charged that Democrats are playing politics.

  • REP. DOUG COLLINS (R-GA):

    What a cynical, mean-spirited, counterproductive and irresponsible step it is.

  • REP. MIKE JOHNSON (R-LA):

    Our Democrat colleagues have weaponized our critical oversight abilities.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Republican Jim Sensenbrenner said the attorney general cannot hand over all of the Mueller report because grand jury testimony in particular must stay secret.

  • REP. JAMES SENSENBRENNER (R-WI):

    I think it is absolutely shocking that the majority of this committee is going to ask the chief law enforcement officer of the United States to commit a crime. Shocking.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Democrats rejected the argument as hyperbole.

  • REP. MARY GAY SCANLON (D-PA):

    Nobody is asking the attorney general to disobey the law. We're asking the attorney general to obey the law and produce the Mueller report and the supporting documentation.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    At the White House, hard pushback at the committee and Chairman Nadler.

  • SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, White House Press Secretary:

    The attorney general is protecting information, grand jury information, confidential information that he cannot release. The fact that the chairman knows that and continues to ignore it is absolutely absurd.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Charging contempt of Congress is a power lawmakers have held since the 1700s, but it is rarely used against members of the executive branch, and even more rarely against the attorney general. There was a sense of the stakes on both sides.

    Rep. David Cicilline (D) – R.I.: I think people should recognize this is a deadly serious moment our democracy is being tested. The rule of law and our basic institutions that have made our democracy the envy of the world are being tested.

    Rep. Steve Chabot (R) – Ohio: Our Democratic colleagues seem to be on a mission. They're determined to destroy Attorney General Barr, or at least discredit him in the eyes of the American people.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The vote reflected the sentiments.

  • Rep. Jerrold Nadler:

    Those in favor respond by saying aye. Aye. Opposed, no.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    A party-line split, with Democrats voting to charge the attorney general with contempt. That resolution now moves to the full House.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    This evening, it is being widely reported that Republican-led Intelligence Committee has subpoenaed Donald Trump Jr. They intend to ask, reportedly, about his meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower in New York in 2016 and efforts by the Trump Organization to build a Trump high-rise in Moscow.

    And Lisa joins me now, along with our White House correspondent, Yamiche Alcindor.

    Hello to both of you.

    So, from your perspective, Yamiche, what are these power moves about that the White House is making? And what is their rationale for claiming executive privilege?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, this really comes down to historic power plays between the White House and Congress, each using their constitutional powers to really go head to head.

    So, on the White House's side, the president is saying that Democrats are bitter about the 2016 election, and, as a result, they're carrying out partisan attacks. Democrats, of course, say they're just going and doing oversight over the president, that he should be held accountable.

    When it comes to exerting executive privilege, the White House has two rationales for this. The first is that they say the material that Congress wants are actually illegal to release. They say that there are issues with law enforcement sources, intelligence sources, and also grand jury material.

    The other thing that White House aides have been telling me today, they — the White House wanted to exert executive privilege before the hearing because they wanted to protect Attorney General Bill Barr. They say that it's going to be harder for him to be held in contempt if the president is exerting executive privilege. So this is really about the White House trying to have Bill Barr's back.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Lisa, you're talking to everybody on the Hill. What are they saying? What are Democrats saying this is all about? And why do they reject the president's claim of executive privilege?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's so interesting about protecting the attorney general, because Democrats believe that the president already waived executive privilege here by allowing this testimony in the first place to Robert Mueller.

    They said that's when he should have claimed executive privilege, not now. So they say that that's not an argument that they can put stock in. They also say that this is about more than what's happening.

    Increasingly, Judy, I feel not just tension, but a larger concern from Democrats. They see a potential erosion of checks and balances. I talked to Representative Debbie Mucarsel-Powell from Florida. She's an immigrant from Ecuador. And she told me that she was thinking about South American dictators and how one small kind of erosion in checks and balances can hurt a democracy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Huh.

    And so back to you, Yamiche. Where does this go from here? And what is the White House saying about some of the Democrats calling this a constitutional crisis?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, the battle between White House and Congress is just getting started.

    On the issue of contempt, the DOJ put out a very strong statement today saying that Attorney General Bill Barr shouldn't be bullied into releasing information that he thinks is illegal. Then you're moving on to the idea of executive privilege. There's this idea that there might be pushback between Robert Mueller and Don McGahn, the former White House counsel, to testifying before Congress.

    The White House is saying that's separate issues and that they haven't made a determination whether or not they would allow that to go forward. But I was talking to a White House source today. That person said that the White House has already told Don McGahn not to turn over any documents to Congress because of issues of executive privilege.

    Then, of course, this idea, broadening it out, Don Jr. being subpoenaed by the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee really goes to the heart of this idea that Congress might now start having fights between the president's own party and his son.

    And then, lastly, this idea of constitutional crisis, I put the question directly to Sarah Sanders today and said, what do you make of the fact that there are people saying that the president's edging the country closer and closer to a constitutional crisis?

    She said Democrats are the ones overstepping and that the president is on firm legal grounds here. So she's backing up the president, as Democrats are, of course, sounding the alarm.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's two totally different — completely opposite sets of arguments.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Lisa, we see the Congress moving closer to a full House vote on this question of contempt. Historically, does that mean the House is likely to get what it wants?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    It's complicated, Judy.

    What ends up happening in these cases, as I reported, executive branch contempt of Congress is very rare. We have seen a couple of cases in recent years, one, White House counsel Harriet Miers under George W. Bush, and then Attorney General Eric Holder under President Obama.

    In both of these those cases, Judy, it went to court. The courts took a long time to decide and it went through appeal after appeal. In the end, while the courts upheld the idea, the concept of Congress having this power, the court did not want to enforce it. And the presidents at the time were basically able to run out the clock.

    Those documents were obtained by Congress in both cases, but generally not until a new president was elected. So running out the clock is very possible here for President Trump. However, there's something exceedingly rare that some Democrats are talking about. They have a different power of contempt that they're not invoking now.

    It's called an inherent contempt of Congress, which means Congress itself can wedge — can assess fines. And, long ago, it used to actually imprison people itself. Some Democrats are saying perhaps it's time for them to try and use that power, which has not been used since 1935.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I was going to say that has not been used for a very long time.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    No. There used to be a House jail, of course, no longer.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right. Well, it's — it seems to me it couldn't get much more serious than it is now, but we're watching.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You and Yamiche, thank you, both.

    Yamiche Alcindor, Lisa Desjardins, we thank you.

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