American President Donald Trump has declared executive privilege to hide parts of a Special Counsel report from Congress. The report is the findings of an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
On Wednesday, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd sent a letter to Representative Jerrold Nadler, chair of the House Judiciary Committee. It said: “This is to advise you that the President has asserted executive privilege over the entirety of the subpoenaed materials.”
Boyd wrote that the action was necessary. He said it was the result of the committee’s plan to hold a vote advising that Attorney General William Barr be declared in contempt of Congress.
Nadler called the President’s action “unprecedented obstruction.” He said, “As a co-equal branch of government, we must have access to the materials that we need to fulfill our constitutional responsibilities...”
The House Judiciary Committee then voted to hold Barr in contempt of Congress. The full House is expected to vote on the measure at a later date.
Last month, Barr released parts of the Mueller report.
Those parts described many contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia. However, another part said, “…the evidence was not sufficient to support criminal charges.” It also examined about 10 actions by the president related to the obstruction of justice investigation. The special counsel noted, “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
The 448-page report included redactions that Barr said are necessary to protect grand jury information, intelligence secrets, ongoing investigations and the privacy rights of others.
Nadler and Democratic Party leaders in the House said they want to see the full report and all related evidence. Barr has so far refused the request.
Executive privilege vs. Congressional subpoena power
Neither executive privilege nor congressional subpoena power are noted in the U.S. Constitution. But the third branch of government, the judiciary branch, has long affirmed both measures in its rulings.
In the 1920s, the U.S. Supreme Court established that Congress has very broad power to investigate and get information, as part of its legislative operations. The rulings came while the Senate was investigating government corruption in what came to be known as the Teapot Dome scandal.
The U.S. government’s Congressional Research Service notes that Congress can issue subpoenas to force requests for information. The CRS also says Congress can hold people in contempt who refuse such requests.
American presidents since George Washington have claimed executive privilege to keep information from Congress.
After a failed military operation against Native Americans in 1791, President Washington refused to provide Congress documents and information linked to the action. Washington claimed at the time he had the right to withhold the information because it was in the public interest.
President Dwight Eisenhower was the first American president to use the term “executive privilege.” Eisenhower even declared that executive privilege belonged to the entire executive branch. He used the power 44 times.
In April 1974, President Richard Nixon asserted executive privilege to refuse to release tape recordings made in the Oval Office. Nixon’s lawyer argued only the president could decide when and how to use the privilege.
The U.S. Supreme Court rejected that argument. Nixon resigned shortly after in what became known as the Watergate Scandal.
More importantly, the Supreme Court ruled for the first time that executive privilege was constitutional but only “to the extent that [it] relates to the effective discharge of the president’s powers.”
Trump has said that his administration is “fighting all the subpoenas.” His assertion of executive privilege is likely the first of many to come as House leaders are using subpoena power to learn more about the Mueller report and to get Trump’s personal and financial documents.
A contempt of Congress vote from the full House against Barr would mean that he could go to jail for up to 12 months. But Congress would have to send the case to Justice Department lawyers who are unlikely to act against their own supervisor.
I’m Ashley Thompson.
Hai Do wrote this story for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.
Words in This Story
assert - v. to state in a strong and definite way
subpoena - n. a written order that commands someone to appear in Congress (or court) to give evidence
contempt - n. behavior that does not show proper respect to Congress (or the court)
access - n. a way of getting to something
sufficient - adj. providing as much as needed
conclude - v. to form or state an opinion
exonerate - v. to prove that someone is not guilty of a crime
redaction - n. writings removed prior to publication
scandal - n. an occurrence in which people are shocked and upset because of behavior that is morally or legally wrong