House Dems eye contempt charges for Trump officials

House Dems eye contempt charges for Trump officials
© Greg Nash

House Democratic committee leaders are threatening to hold top administration officials in contempt of Congress amid a series of ongoing investigations, a recourse that could lead to fines — or even prison.

The idea has been floated in recent weeks by a small handful of rank-and-file members who’ve accused the administration of stonewalling, but it gained steam on Tuesday as the chairmen of several powerful panels said they’re also considering contempt in an effort to compel the cooperation of recalcitrant administration witnesses.

“I promise we will do everything in our power to enforce our subpoena. I refuse to be in a situation where we’re unable to use every tool that we have in our toolbox to do that,” Rep. Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsHouse Democrats question DHS over using facial recognition tech on US citizens House Democrats question DHS over using facial recognition tech on US citizens Democrats lash out at Trump's bombshell remarks MORE (D-Md.), chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, told reporters in the Capitol. Invoking a little-used process known as inherent contempt, Cummings said, is one of those options.

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”We will look at all those tools from a very practical standpoint,” he said. “It may be that we want to just deal with fines, I don’t know. But it’s either fines and/or prison.”

Separately, Reps. Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerWatergate figure John Dean earns laughter for responses to GOP lawmakers The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by MAPRx - Nadler gets breakthrough deal with DOJ on Mueller docs The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by MAPRx - Nadler gets breakthrough deal with DOJ on Mueller docs MORE (D-N.Y.), head of the Judiciary Committee, and Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffSchiff blasts DOJ over memo on withholding Trump tax returns Schiff blasts DOJ over memo on withholding Trump tax returns Hillicon Valley: Hacker group targeted electric grid | House Democrats press CBP over facial recognition program | Senators offer bill to protect health data | Groups file FCC complaint over carriers' use of location data MORE (D-Calif.), head of the Intelligence Committee, met with members of the New Democrat Coalition Tuesday morning, where they also endorsed the possibility of tapping contempt as a strategy for compelling testimony from uncooperative administration officials. 

“I think we need to explore any mechanism that we have to insist on the administration complying with the law,” Schiff told The Hill. “And that obviously includes litigating it, it includes fencing funding, it may involve resurrection of the power of inherent contempt.”

Under inherent contempt, both the House and the Senate have the authority to “detain and imprison” an individual who refuses to comply with congressional demands, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. But such an approach has not been used for nearly a century, and employing the House sergeant at arms to go after Trump officials would be a highly unusual move.

Still, Trump adopted a highly unusual strategy when he recently vowed to fight every subpoena issued by Democrats in the course of their various investigations into the administration. Many Democrats consider that a stalling tactic, in which the president is hoping to evade scrutiny by prolonging the investigations so long that they simply dissolve. 

Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyDems eye repeal of Justice rule barring presidential indictments Dems eye repeal of Justice rule barring presidential indictments Swing-state Democrats see trouble in proposed pay hike MORE (D-Va.), who’s been a leading proponent of inherent contempt, said it may be the Democrats’ best strategy for getting information quickly enough to conduct the oversight they promised voters when they took control of the House. 

“If you’re worried about timeline, and they’re playing the clock, you’ve got to short-circuit the process. And waiting two or three years for a court to rule in your favor is not going to cut it,” Connolly said Tuesday. “That’s why the inherent contempt route makes sense. … We can send the sergeant at arms and arrest you and detain you.” 

Connolly, a member of the New Democrats, said he’s encouraged that both Nadler and Schiff expressed their openness to that aggressive strategy. 

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“This is not the hotheads in the caucus who are talking that way. These are mainstream Democrats,” he said. “And that ought to tell you something.”

The threats come after at least three administration officials failed to comply with Democrats’ congressional subpoenas, leaving Democrats frustrated and incentivized to find alternative ways to punish administration officials in ways that do not result in protracted court battles.

In one such case, Cummings threatened to hold former White House personnel director Carl Kline in contempt after he defied a subpoena at the request of the White House.

The Oversight chairman, however, eased up on his threats, agreeing to postpone a vote on contempt in exchange for a voluntary, transcribed interview with Kline on security clearance matters on Wednesday. Cummings emphasized in a letter to Kline over the weekend that the scope of the interview will not be limited — a message he amplified Tuesday.

“If he comes in there tomorrow and if all he wants to talk about is process — which we already know — and does not want to talk about his actions with regard to retaliation, and with regard to what happened in these cases, then we will move forward to take whatever action we have to take to enforce our subpoena,” Cummings said.

Their increasingly aggressive posture comes amid uncertainty over whether Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrTrump's Justice Department should change its tune on antitrust policy Schiff blasts DOJ over memo on withholding Trump tax returns Trump remarks deepen distrust with intelligence community MORE will testify before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday, as scheduled.

Barr has said he would appear but has not agreed to sit for a closed-door interview on special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerKamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump MORE’s report, according to one Judiciary Committee aide. He also has not agreed to be questioned by committee counsels in addition to the panel’s members.

Democrats are digging in their heels, saying Barr does not get to dictate the interview format to Congress. 

“It is not up to anybody from the executive branch to tell the legislative branch how to conduct our business,” Nadler told reporters on Monday. “There is no middle ground for that.” 

If the hearing does not occur, tensions between Congress and the Department of Justice will likely escalate to a feverish pitch as the two battle over who has authority where.

“I think we need to look at all the options because if the administration can evade all oversight then it can engage in corruption or malfeasance without repercussion,” Schiff said.