WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday voted to give lawmakers clear authority to sue Trump administration figures who defy congressional subpoenas, beginning with former White House Counsel Don McGahn, who is expected to face swift action.
In an escalation of wide-ranging probes of President Donald Trump and his inner circle, lawmakers voted 229-191 along party lines to approve the measure. It authorizes House committees to file lawsuits in federal court seeking orders from judges to compel officials to cooperate with official congressional demands for testimony or evidence.
The measure authorizes the House Judiciary Committee to seek a court order enforcing subpoenas relating to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. The committee is seeking an unredacted version of the report, as well as underlying evidence from the investigation, and related documents and testimony.
Democrats acknowledged the unprecedented nature of the resolution.
“This has not been done before. But neither have we ever seen blanket stonewalling by the administration of all information requests by the House,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler said. “We must go to court to enforce the subpoenas.”
Nadler said he would go to court “as quickly as possible” against McGahn to compel him to testify about the Republican president’s efforts to impede Mueller’s investigation.
McGahn, a star witness in the Mueller report, last month defied a subpoena for his testimony and documents after the White House directed him not to cooperate with the Judiciary panel.
Nadler said other witnesses, such as former White House Communications Director Hope Hicks and former McGahn aide Annie Donaldson, would also face court action if they defy committee subpoenas demanding their testimony later this month.
The measure also reinforces a process for other panels to take similar action. Half a dozen House panels are looking into Trump’s presidency and personal holdings.
The House Ways and Means Committee is seeking his tax returns. Other panels are probing his financial records and documents on policies ranging from immigrant family separation to the transfer of nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia.
“In all of our investigations, the White House has not produced one single shred of paper in response to our requests,” House Committee on Oversight and Reform Chairman Elijah Cummings said. “This begs the question: what are they covering up?”
Tuesday’s measure also authorizes the House Judiciary Committee to petition a federal judge for permission to access grand jury evidence from the Mueller probe, a step that Nadler said the committee will now take promptly.
House Republicans dismissed the vote as a “media-grabbing” stunt by Democrats to bolster their partisan interests in the 2020 presidential election in which Trump is seeking a second four-year term in office.
“It is difficult not to view the purpose of this resolution and this debate as anything but political,” Republican Representative Debbie Lesko said.
The vote took place a day after Trump, following repeated requests by Democrats, allowed the Justice Department to give members of Nadler’s committee access to redacted sections of the Mueller report dealing with possible obstruction of justice by Trump as well as underlying documents.
Lawmakers on Nadler’s committee said they hoped to see material as early as Tuesday afternoon.
Under the agreement, House Democrats will hold off on an earlier plan for a criminal contempt vote against Attorney General William Barr, who has resisted a subpoena for the Mueller report and other material. A redacted version was released by Barr in April.
Trump’s defiance of House Democrats has helped ratchet up pressure on Democratic leaders to formally begin the impeachment process set out in the U.S. Constitution to remove a president from office - an inquiry that some rank-and-file Democrats see as giving legal heft to House investigations of Trump.
It was not clear what effect the agreement with the Justice Department would have on that dynamic.
“All options are on the table. That’s all I’m going to say publicly,” Nadler told reporters when asked about the possibility of an impeachment inquiry.
The House Oversight Committee plans to hold contempt votes against Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Wednesday after they defied subpoenas related to the U.S. census.
Reporting by David Morgan; additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Amanda Becker; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Will Dunham and Rosalba O'Brien