Dems struggle to make Trump bend on probes

House Democrats are struggling to find a way to make the Trump administration pay for refusing to cooperate with their investigations.

Democrats want to pursue aggressive oversight of Trump instead of impeachment, but the president’s stone wall hasn’t left them many openings. And the frustrations are showing.

The House Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to hold Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrDemocrats: Ex-Commerce aide said Ross asked him to examine adding census citizenship question The Hill's Morning Report - In exclusive interview, Trump talks Biden, Iran, SCOTUS and reparations EXCLUSIVE: Trump declines to say he has confidence in FBI director MORE in contempt of Congress for not complying with subpoenas for documents related to special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerKamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump Schiff says Intel panel will hold 'series' of hearings on Mueller report MORE’s report.

ADVERTISEMENT

After the Treasury Department refused to hand over Trump’s tax returns this week, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard NealRichard Edmund NealTrump's tax returns — DOJ trying to put off the inevitable? Democrats talk up tax credits to counter Trump law House panel approves bills on tax extenders, expanding tax credits MORE (D-Mass.) said the fight will likely go straight to the courts.

“They don’t seem to be responding to a lot of subpoenas around here,” said Neal, who plans to meet with House counsel on Thursday to discuss his options. “I did say this was going to end up in the courts. And that’s where it’s heading.”

Democrats have limited options for punishing the Trump administration.

House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsNew EPA rule would expand Trump officials' powers to reject FOIA requests Democrats: Ex-Commerce aide said Ross asked him to examine adding census citizenship question White House to block Conway from testifying over alleged Hatch Act violations MORE (D-Md.) this week threatened to withhold the salaries of Interior and Commerce department officials who block interviews with his panel.

Some Democrats also suggested they could invoke what’s called “inherent contempt,” which allows Congress to detain a person held in contempt until the demands are met. And there’s impeachment of administration officials or Trump himself.

Rep. David CicillineDavid Nicola CicillineHillicon Valley: House panel advances election security bill | GOP senator targets YouTube with bill on child exploitation | Hicks told Congress Trump camp felt 'relief' after release of Clinton docs | Commerce blacklists five Chinese tech groups Judiciary Democrat says small firms fear retaliation from big tech in antitrust probe Hope Hicks: Trump campaign felt 'relief' after WikiLeaks released damaging info about Hillary Clinton MORE (D-R.I.), a Judiciary Committee member who also leads House Democrats’ messaging arm, said “all that stuff” will be on the table if there are no other options, though he added, “We’re not anywhere near that yet.”

“I think we’re going to try to litigate this in an expedited fashion,” he said. “But we’re not going to allow the president and his administration to stonewall sufficiently for the sole purpose of running out the clock so they can avoid accountability and avoid us getting to the full truth.”

Democrats acknowledge that the blanket stonewalling from the Trump administration could itself potentially be an impeachable offense. They point to the third article of impeachment against former President Nixon, which charged a failure to comply with congressional subpoenas related to the Watergate investigation. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“I do think that there is ongoing obstruction of justice. It’s not something that’s just of the past. It’s something that is happening right now as the president refuses to allow us to see the results or hear from the witnesses that were part of the Mueller investigation,” said Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalSanders unveils student debt plan amid rivalry with Warren The Evergreen State and the soul of the Democratic Party Sanders proposes canceling .6 trillion in US student debt MORE (D-Wash.), a Judiciary Committee member and leading progressive.

“I think, clearly, the more the administration refuses and leaves us with very few options, we’ll keep everything on the table.”

Speaker Nancy Pelsosi (D-Calif.), who opposes a rush to impeachment, said Trump is nevertheless making a case for the process. She suggested earlier this week that Trump is “goading” Democrats into impeachment to rally his base. “Every single day the president is making a case — he’s becoming self-impeachable, in terms of some of the things he’s doing,” Pelosi said during a public interview with The Washington Post on Wednesday.

Passage of a contempt resolution against Barr won’t address the question of how to secure information from the administration, but Rep. Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesHouse Democrats close to finalizing border aid bill House hearing marks historic moment for slavery reparations debate Dems eye repeal of Justice rule barring presidential indictments MORE (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said it would raise the stakes.

“We have an obligation, I think, to proceed in a cautious, deliberate and forceful fashion. That is exactly what we are doing by moving to hold the attorney general in contempt,” he said.

House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerDemocrats give Trump trade chief high marks Hispanic Caucus seeks to retain voice in House leadership GOP lawmakers want Mulvaney sidelined in budget talks MORE (D-Md.) acknowledged that taking their case to the courts could lead to months of litigation, drawing the debate well into the 2020 presidential race. But ensuring the accountability of the executive branch, he argued, is worth the wait.

“If it takes some time, so be it. We would hope that it would not take some time, and my recommendation is we ask the courts — if in fact we take court action — to accelerate whatever action is necessary in the defense of democracy. But we’re going to proceed as the law provides us the opportunity to proceed.”

Polling suggests some risks for Democrats.

A NPR–PBS NewsHour–Marist poll released last week found that 48 percent of Americans think Democrats in Congress should keep holding hearings to further investigate the findings in Mueller’s report, while 46 percent think the investigations should end.

An NBC News–Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday found that 48 percent believe Congress shouldn’t hold impeachment hearings, while 32 percent think Congress should keep investigating to see if there is enough evidence to hold impeaching hearings in the future. Just 17 percent think there’s enough evidence for Congress to start impeachment hearings now.

The most recent instances of Congress voting to hold an administration official in contempt offered limited results.

During George W. Bush’s presidency, the Democratic-controlled House voted in February 2008 to hold White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten and White House counsel Harriet Miers in contempt over the terminations of U.S. attorneys. More than a year later and after Bush left office, a deal was reached for Miers to testify at a closed hearing.

In 2012, House Republicans voted to hold Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderThe most important pledge Democratic presidential candidates can make Congress and contempt: What you need to know The Hill's Morning Report - Democrats wonder: Can Nadler handle the Trump probe? MORE in contempt after the Obama administration exercised executive privilege over documents related to the “Fast and Furious” gun-tracking operation. A federal judge ruled two years later that the Justice Department, which declined to prosecute Holder, had to provide Congress with documents related to the scandal. But that didn’t include all of the documents requested by the Oversight and Reform Committee.

House Republicans also voted in 2014 to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt for invoking the Fifth Amendment in declining to answer questions before the House Oversight and Reform Committee over the targeting of conservative groups over their tax-exempt status. But the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia notified the House in 2015 that Lerner didn’t warrant prosecution.

Democrats said they hoped the across-the-board defiance from the Trump administration would boost their case in the courts. 

“What we have is something completely different here. It is a sweeping categorical defiance of the role of Congress,” said Rep. Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinDemocrats seek to ban federal spending at Trump businesses Warren introduces universal child care legislation Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump MORE (D-Md.), a Judiciary Committee member and former constitutional law professor. “And that just can’t stand, so we’re hoping that the courts are going to take our side and say that the people of the United States have the right to this information.”

Mike Lillis contributed.