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“Contempt of Congress” and “Constitutional Crisis”: Breaking Down the Ominous Terms Coming out of Washington

 

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 01: U.S. President Donald Trump participates in a meeting with leaders of the steel industry at the White House March 1, 2018 in Washington, DC. Trump announced planned tariffs on imported steel and aluminum during the meeting, with details to be released at a later date. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Congressman Jerry Nadler, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, knows that the term “constitutional crisis” gets thrown around a lot. It’s overused, which is a shame, because it means the phrase doesn’t carry the weight it should when it’s needed to draw attention to an actual constitutional crisis. Like the one Nadler says we are experiencing right now.

Yesterday was a big day in Washington DC. First up, Nadler’s committee voted to hold William Barr in contempt of Congress over what appears to be Barr’s disingenuous handling of Robert Mueller’s report and his refusal to release the full, unredacted report to the committee. That vote still has to pass the full House but it’s a bold step, sending a clear message that Democrats aren’t going to tolerate Trump administration officials’ lies and blind protection of the president at the expense of all else.

“We cannot allow Donald Trump and his minions to convert a democratic government into what amounts to a monarchy, where a Congress elected by the people has no real role,” Nadler told CNN Wednesday.

What exactly does it mean for someone to be held in contempt of Congress? Well, “willfully” failing to comply with a congressional subpoena is officially a misdemeanor. According to TIME, that can earn someone up to a year in prison and a $1000 fine. Of course, Congress would have to find an attorney to prosecute the Attorney General and that doesn’t seem super likely. A civil suit is possible but it looks like for now we’re in “wait and see” territory.

There is precedent for holding a sitting Attorney General in contempt, as a Republican-controlled House did just that to President Obama’s AG, Eric Holder after he too failed to provide requested documents. Obama did not prosecute Holder, citing executive privilege. Speaking of which …

Yesterday, Donald Trump claimed executive privilege over Mueller’s report and its underlying documents. This means Trump can keep those subpoenaed materials from going to Congress and he can possibly interfere with Mueller’s tentatively planned testimony. Which is definitely something an innocent person would do, right? Witch hunt!

The other big thing that happened yesterday was that the Senate Intelligence Committee subpoenaed Donald Trump, Jr. regarding Russian intelligence matters. It’s not known exactly what he’ll be asked but this is big for a few reasons. First, this is the first member of Trump Sr.’s immediate family to be subpoenaed. (Jr. already testified in front of Congress in September of 2017 and said he was only “peripherally aware” of a planned Trump Moscow project. Michael Cohen, who just started his three-year prison sentence, told Congress that wasn’t the whole truth and that he briefed Don Jr. and Ivanka on the project “about ten times.”)

The Don Jr. news is also notable because that subpoena came from the Republican-controlled Senate, and just a day after Mitch McConnell declared “case closed” on the Russia investigation. The Intelligence Committee is chaired by Republican Senator Richard Burr who, in addition to being investigated by the Secret Service in 2016 for “joking” about putting a “bullseye” on a picture of Hillary Clinton’s face in a gun shop, was found to be a back channel for the White House, feeding the WH counsel’s office with information regarding the Russia investigation. It seems strange that he was allowed to continue heading the committee after that news came out, and maybe even stranger that he’s now coming after Trump, Jr.

So yes, it was a big day in DC. Is it a full-on constitutional crisis? Donald Trump’s entire presidency has seemed dedicated to breaking norms and pushing the limits of what is considered constitutionally tolerable so it’s honestly hard to have any perspective on a question like that anymore.

(image: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

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Vivian Kane (she/her) has a lot of opinions about a lot of things. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri with her husband Brock Wilbur and too many cats.