WASHINGTON: Donald Trump refused Wednesday to release materials demanded by Congress on investigations into the US leader, asserting his presidential authority for the first time in an escalating conflict with Democratic lawmakers.
The White House is seeking to shield a large swathe of material — including redacted portions of the special counsel’s report on Russian election interference — subpoenaed by lawmakers seeking to exert their oversight responsibility.
The rare move to invoke executive privilege came as a House of Representatives committee launched contempt proceedings against US Attorney General Bill Barr for failing to turn over the documents.
“Neither the White House nor Attorney General Barr will comply with Chairman (Jerry) Nadler’s unlawful and reckless demands,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said, referring to the Democratic head of the House Judiciary Committee.
Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd wrote to lawmakers that Trump had “asserted executive privilege over the entirety of the subpoenaed materials.”
He said Nadler’s effort to hold Barr in contempt had “terminated” their negotiations over which documents Congress would be allowed to see from Mueller’s investigation.
“This decision represents a clear escalation in the Trump administration’s blanket defiance of Congress’s constitutionally mandated duties,” Nadler said at the start of the contempt hearing.
Democrats have framed the broadening conflict as a constitutional crisis, with some calling for impeachment proceedings, while the administration accuses Democrats of seeking to tear down the president.
Judiciary Committee Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee offered a scathing rebuke of what she termed the White House’s “absolute lawless behavior.”
The president, she said, “seeks to take a wrecking ball to the Constitution of the United States of America.”
Trump took to Twitter to rail about the two-year investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, whose report the president said has exonerated him of any wrongdoing.
“TREASONOUS HOAX!” Trump boomed, a reference to a favorite complaint that the probe was unwarranted and initiated as a political hit job by his opponents.
– ‘Disturbing evidence’ –
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Trump’s main Democratic nemesis in Congress, voiced support for the provocative contempt move, aimed at holding the president and his inner circle to account.
“I think that the attorney general should be held in contempt,” Pelosi told a conference in Washington.
Barr, in the nation’s top law enforcement post only since mid-February, defied a subpoena by the Judiciary Committee to turn over a complete copy of the Mueller report and the underlying evidence, and last week refused to testify before the panel.
The committee launched into debate on the 27-page contempt citation in which Nadler wrote that the Mueller report, even in redacted form, “offers disturbing evidence and analysis that President Trump engaged in obstruction of justice at the highest levels.”
Barr declared Trump cleared of conspiracy with Russia and obstruction of justice shortly after Mueller presented his 448-page report to the Justice Department in March.
Democrats have protested that Barr has sought to protect the president by refusing to present the full report or underlying evidence to Congress.
The political skirmish has played out on multiple fronts. The White House this week formally rejected a request by Democrats to turn over Trump’s tax returns, setting up what will likely be a prolonged legal battle.
And on Tuesday the administration instructed former White House counsel Don McGahn, a key figure in Mueller’s report, to withhold documents sought by the Judiciary committee. —AFP