The House could vote to hold Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in contempt of Congress if by September the Department of Justice has still not turned over outstanding documents Republican lawmakers requested.
“I think the very first order of business would probably be moving the House to a contempt vote,” House Freedom Caucus Mark Meadows said of what would happen if the DOJ has still not turned over remaining documents by September.
For nearly nine months, House Republicans have been asking for documents related to the DOJ and FBI’s handling of its investigations into Russia interference in the 2016 election and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign.
Many of the documents relate to the FBI’s alleged abuse of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act process to obtain a warrant to spy on Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
“We’ve gotten a great deal of progress on compliance, but we do not have full compliance,” Speaker Paul D. Ryan told reporters Thursday. “And we expect to get that.”
The disagreement among Republicans like Ryan and Meadows has been how to go about achieving full compliance.
Ryan has said that he’s been able to get DOJ to turn over more documents just by meeting with officials there and talking through both sides’ concerns.
But conservatives like Meadows and Freedom Caucus founding chairman Jim Jordan do not believe that Ryan’s diplomacy has been effective enough.
That’s why they filed a resolution Wednesday evening to impeach Rosenstein for failure to turn over the documents, among other grievances.
But their goal was never really about impeaching Rosenstein. Meadows and Jordan know an impeachment resolution would never pass the House.
A resolution to hold Rosenstein in contempt of Congress, however, has a shot at passage.
But that’s not something Meadows or Jordan could bring up as an individual member as a matter of privilege. The House Judiciary Committee has to initiate contempt proceedings; if the panel were to pass such a resolution it would automatically become privileged.
The privileged status of a resolution is important because it means that the House has to vote on it — or a related motion to table it or refer it back to committee — within two legislative days.
As an individual member Meadows could not offer a privileged resolution for holding Rosenstein in contempt of Congress, but he could do bring up articles of impeachment as a privileged resolution.
In holding out the possibility that he was going to do that and force the House to go on record on the controversial question, Meadows brought GOP leaders to negotiating table.
The North Carolina Republican told reporters Thursday as his House colleagues had already started hitting the exits for August recess that he came to an agreement with leadership to avoid his filing a privileged impeachment resolution.
Ryan told reporters Thursday he opposed the impeachment resolution for a number of reasons.
“I don’t think we should be cavalier with this process, or with this term, number one,” he said. “Number two, I don’t think that this rises to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors. I have a really high standard.”
Third, Ryan pointed out the “tremendous progress” DOJ has made in turning over the documents.
Lastly, the speaker noted that if a privileged impeachment resolution were to pass the House it would “tie the Senate into knots” because of the Senate’s rules and procedures for considering privileged measures.
“So, for many reasons, I don’t think it’s the right way to go,” Ryan said. “But we do expect compliance. We want to make sure that we get compliance. And we look at all the various tools that we have available, including having the kinds of dialogues we’ve been having recently in order to get compliance from DOJ.”
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise seemed more interested in looking at stronger tools than dialogue.
“There is no motion to vote on right now, but there are tools that have been laid out,” the Louisiana Republican said. “Impeachment is a clear tool. Contempt is a clear tool. But none of these tools need to be used if Justice just complies and turns over the documents.”
Scalise said House Republicans would be giving DOJ specific information about what they need to consider them in compliance.
Since the House is not scheduled to return until Sept. 4, they have at least until then to comply before the House would deploy the impeachment or contempt tools. But Scalise made clear that House Republicans are prepared to do that if needed.
“It’s time for them to get series, because we’re serious.”
Meadows suggested that Ryan is on board with the plan to move forward with contempt in September if the DOJ is still not in compliance with Congress’ request.
“The speaker is willing to support [Judiciary] Chairman [Bob] Goodlatte in a contempt process if the agreed upon documents are not delivered,” he said.
A Judiciary aide said the committee expects DOJ’s full compliance with its subpoena and that the department will produce all the documents Congress is entitled to and fully cooperate with Judiciary’s investigation.
But Goodlatte has shown a willingness to be tough on DOJ and FBI officials throughout the panel’s investigation into the FISA abuse. He threatened to hold FBI agent Peter Strzok in contempt of Congress during a hearing in which Strzok declined to answer a lot of questions, citing ongoing investigations.
Should Goodlatte and GOP leaders not follow through with the agreement to initiate contempt proceedings if DOJ is not in compliance by September, Meadows is reserving the option to force a vote on the impeachment resolution.
But clearly, Meadows’ ultimate goal is a contempt resolution, since it has a better shot at passing the House. He’s just using the impeachment resolution as leverage to force a reluctant Ryan to allow Goodlatte to proceed with the contempt process.
“All options are still on the table and remain on the table,” Meadows said. “I control one of those options. The speaker controls the other option. And so at this point I would think the most prudent way to go is contempt.”
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