WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. congressional Democrats on Wednesday authorized a powerful committee chairman to subpoena Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s full report on Russia’s role in the 2016 election, moving closer to a legal clash with President Donald Trump’s administration.
The Democratic-led House of Representatives Judiciary Committee voted to enable its chairman, Jerrold Nadler, to subpoena the Justice Department to obtain Mueller’s unredacted report and all underlying evidence as well as documents and testimony from five former Trump aides including political strategist Steve Bannon.
Nadler has not yet exercised that authority, with the timing of any such move uncertain. The committee vote was 24-17 along party lines, with Democrats in favor and Trump’s fellow Republicans opposed.
Attorney General William Barr, a Trump appointee, issued a four-page summary of Mueller’s main conclusions last month including that the special counsel did not establish that the Trump campaign conspired with Russia during the election.
Barr has pledged to release the nearly 400-page report by mid-April with certain portions blacked out for reasons such as protecting secret grand jury information and intelligence-gathering sources and methods.
In addition to Bannon, the committee authorized subpoenas for former White House Counsel Donald McGahn, former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, former White House Communications Director Hope Hicks and former White House deputy counsel Ann Donaldson.
They are among 81 people, agencies and entities the panel has sought documents from as part of its obstruction and corruption investigation into Trump and his associates.
Nadler’s panel shifted its focus to subpoenas to obtain the Mueller report when it became clear Barr would ignore a Democratic demand turn it over unredacted by a Tuesday deadline. Democrats have expressed concern Barr could use redactions to suppress evidence of potential misconduct by Trump and his campaign.
Nadler said he would work with Barr “for a short period of time in the hope that he will reveal to us the entire Mueller report and all the underlying materials” and will go to court to get permission to obtain the grand jury material.
“But if that doesn’t work out in a very short order, we will issue the subpoenas,” Nadler added. “... The committee must see everything.”
The potential battle between the executive and legislative branches over the subpoenas could end up being resolved by the federal government’s third branch - the judiciary.
Representative Doug Collins, the committee’s top Republican, said Democrats are “desperate for dirt on this president.”
“This is reckless. It’s irresponsible. And it’s disingenuous,” Collins said. “It’s also confusing since the attorney general is doing exactly what he said he would be doing: making as much of the report public as possible under federal law and departmental policy.”
It was not clear how likely the Justice Department would be to hand over subpoenaed documents. It could ignore a subpoena, running the risk of being held in contempt of Congress, and prepare for a potentially lengthy court battle.
In another development, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Democratic-led House Intelligence Committee, led by Trump critic Adam Schiff, is seeking an interview with and documents from a top organizer on Trump’s inaugural committee.
Citing people familiar with the request, the Journal reported that the effort signaled that Congress is expanding its probe of how the inaugural committee raised and spent more than $100 million. The report could not immediately be confirmed by Reuters.
Barr’s March 24 letter to lawmakers explaining Mueller’s “principal conclusions” said the special counsel did not exonerate Trump on obstruction of justice. Barr himself subsequently concluded that Mueller’s inquiry had not found sufficient evidence to warrant criminal obstruction charges against Trump.
Trump has denied collusion with Russia and obstruction of justice. Moscow denied election interference. Mueller and U.S. intelligence agencies concluded Russia used a campaign of hacking and propaganda to harm Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and boost Trump.
Democrats have pledged to fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to enforce a subpoena and obtain the full report.
“If the department still refuses, then it should be up to a judge - not the president or his political appointee - to decide whether it is appropriate for the committee to review the complete record,” Nadler said.
Trump ally Lindsey Graham, Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote on Twitter that the House panel’s demand for classified information and grand jury testimony was “dangerous and ridiculous.”
The Justice Department declined comment. Priebus declined to comment. A lawyer for Priebus, Bannon and McGahn, as well as a Bannon spokeswoman, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Justice Department regulations give the attorney general wide latitude on how much to release from special counsel inquiries. Nadler told reporters he would also seek a judge’s permission to get access to Mueller’s grand jury material, which is protected under federal law. Nadler said Barr has not been willing to seek a court order to release the data so far.
Republican Representative Jim Sensenbrenner said he would be willing to join legal action to obtain the grand jury material and predicted other Republicans would as well, noting that the House voted overwhelmingly last month for the full report’s release to Congress.
Reporting by David Morgan; Additional reporting by Karen Freifeld, Sarah N. Lynch, Steve Holland and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Alistair Bell and Will Dunham