In the days since the House Judiciary Committee voted to hold Attorney General Bill Barr in contempt of Congress, more and more Democratic lawmakers have opened the door to the possibility of arresting the Justice Department leader in a bid to force cooperation -- despite party powerbrokers signaling opposition to such a radical step.
The committee last week voted to hold Barr in contempt for failing to comply with a congressional subpoena for Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s unredacted Russia report and underlying materials, as President Trump asserted executive privilege to protect those same files from release.
The panel's party-line decision sent the measure to the House floor for a final vote. If approved, the measure would be referred to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia—who could choose not to act. House Democrats could also pursue a lawsuit.
But there's a more drastic step that has been gaining traction among some of Barr's fiercest critics -- the possibility of dragging Barr in to testify or jailing the AG for defying the subpoena.
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., was one of the first calling for the House to pursue “inherent contempt,” which would have Barr arrested by the sergeant at arms—a tactic reportedly not employed since the 1930s.
Several other lawmakers are now warming to the idea.
“We know how to arrest people around here,” Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., told Politico. “And if we need to arrest someone, the [House] sergeant-at-arms will know how to do it. I’m not afraid of that.”
He added: “If they can arrest my constituents, we can arrest someone else who’s disobeying the law.”
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., also touted Congress’ “inherent authority,” which she said was “at our disposal.”
“We have a number of steps we’re looking at that we can take,” Jayapal told Politico. “People feel like we’re progressing at the appropriate pace.”
But despite rank-and-file Democrats calling for the arrest of Barr, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., seems cool to the idea. Last week, she pushed back when asked about the potential step.
“We do have a jail in the basement of the Capitol, but if we were arresting all of the people in the administration, we would have an overcrowded jail situation,” she said. “And I’m not for that.”
Inherent contempt is one of three contempt options available, along with criminal contempt (under which an individual is charged with a crime) and civil judgment (leading to a civil court process).
And while inherent contempt has not been used in decades, some lawmakers suggest it’s appropriate to consider in this situation.
“There’s a reason why we don’t do it, but there’s a reason why we haven’t had to even talk about it,” Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-Pa., told Politico. “Because we’ve had administrations that have negotiated in good faith and tried to work for the good of the American people rather than the good of a particular incumbent.”
Last week, Cohen told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that Barr needs to be “locked up until he agrees to participate” and come to a hearing before the committee.
Several op-eds, including one by former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich, also supported such a move.
Many Democrats including Pelosi are also claiming that Barr lied to Congress.
“He lied to Congress. And if anybody else did that, it would be considered a crime,” Pelosi told reporters last month. “Nobody is above the law. Not the president of the United States. Not the attorney general.
Pelosi’s public comments came after she, according to Politico, told Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla., during a private caucus meeting Thursday: “We saw [Barr] commit a crime when he answered your question.”
She was referring to an April 9 hearing, where Crist had asked whether Barr knew what prompted reports that prosecutors on the special counsel team were frustrated with his initial summary. Barr said he did not.
But earlier this month, The Washington Post first reported that Special Counsel Robert Mueller contacted Barr, both in a letter and in a phone call, to express concerns after Barr released his four-page summary of Mueller’s findings in March. Mueller pushed Barr to release the executive summaries written by the special counsel’s office. However, according to both the Post and the Justice Department, Mueller made clear that he did not feel that Barr’s summary was inaccurate. Instead, Mueller told Barr that media coverage of the letter had “misinterpreted” the results of the probe concerning obstruction of justice.
Pelosi was also asked if Barr should go to jail for the alleged crime.
“There is a process involved here and as I said, I’ll say it again, the committee will have to come to how we will proceed,” Pelosi said.
“Speaker Pelosi’s baseless attack on the Attorney General is reckless, irresponsible and false,” Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in response.
Democrats have blasted Barr for weeks over his handling of the special counsel’s report. Barr initially released a four-page summary of Mueller’s findings, announcing in late March that the special counsel found no evidence of collusion between members of the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 presidential election. Mueller did not come to a conclusion on whether the president obstructed justice, but Barr said the evidence was not sufficient to charge the president with such an offense.
While Democrats have criticized Barr for that swift conclusion, they have sought the completely unredacted version of the report in a bid to learn more about what information Mueller gathered regarding the obstruction probe. The report released publicly last month had redactions covering sensitive sources and methods, grand jury material, and other areas to protect the reputational interests of “peripheral players” in the investigation.
Barr and his deputies, however, have countered that they've made available to select members a version with minimal redactions -- and Democrats have declined to look at it.