With special counsel Robert Mueller’s report is finally released—and with no further charges recommended—the efforts to hold President Trump and members of his administration accountable have largely shifted to Democratic members of Congress—where, according to new reports, an ugly, chaotic battle brewing.
This fight is going to play out, in a large part, in several key congressional committees with subpoena power, like the House’s Judiciary and Oversight Committees, which have been under Democratic control since the 2018 midterms. Unfortunately, Trump administration officials are doing everything they can to not cooperate with Congress.
Case in point: On Wednesday, John Gore, a high-ranking official in the Justice Department, said (through his attorney) that he would refuse to appear for a scheduled deposition in front of the House Committee for Oversight and Reform. Per the Daily Beast, the specific conflict is that Gore (and his boss, Attorney General William Barr) wants to bring a White House lawyer to the deposition, a move Oversight Committee chair Elijah Cummings has blocked. In this case, what Gore is being subpoenaed over—his role in adding Trump’s racist citizenship question to the forthcoming U.S. census—isn’t really the biggest issue, it’s what will happen if Gore defies the congressional subpoena. As the Beast reported today:
Gore will be the highest-profile Trump administration official to defy a Congressional subpoena––so far. Earlier this week, the lawyer for Carl Kline, a career official who green-lit Jared Kushner’s security clearance, told Cummings he will not participate in a deposition about that issue unless lawyers from the White House Counsel’s Office can attend. Cummings has taken steps to hold him in contempt of Congress. If the House votes to hold him in contempt––a safe bet––then they may refer the matter to the D.C. U.S. Attorney. That attorney is Jessie Liu, a Trump appointee.
Gore will find himself in a similar situation if the House votes to hold him in contempt.
These cases will test the power of Congressional committees. In the past, efforts to compel testimony have garnered mixed results; House Republicans famously voted to hold then-Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt in 2012 while investigating the Fast and Furious scandal. Despite the contempt vote, Holder still didn’t comply with the House’s demands.
Essentially, even with a contempt vote, there’s a possibility that the Trump administration fights off congressional subpoenas by just... refusing to do anything, the legal equivalent of a child screaming “I can’t hear you” with their fingers stuffed in their ears.
Democrats have realized they’re going to need more weapons for these fights. Bloomberg reported today that over at the House Judiciary Committee, chairman Jerrod Nailer is probing the limits of what exactly his committee could do to force Trump officials to play ball (emphasis mine):
At a meeting of House leaders earlier this month, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler suggested fining officials personally if they deny or ignore subpoenas, according to a person who attended the meeting. Nadler’s idea, the person said, was to put teeth in his party’s numerous investigative queries, many of which Trump officials are stonewalling or simply ignoring.
Nadler even mentioned jailing administration officials as a consequence for contempt of Congress, though he surmised such a plan might be unrealistic, added the person, who requested anonymity to discuss a closed-door session. The person said the idea surprised many in the room but seemed to have been researched as a serious option by Nadler or his staff.
Unrealistic as it may be, the possibility that Trump toadies could face actual jail time for stonewalling Congress could set a powerful precedent for future investigations, and might be the only way to extract any meaningful cooperation. Subpoena power is nice, but if you can’t back it up, what good is it going to do?