WASHINGTON – Democrats are pushing a resolution through the House Tuesday that would make it easier to sue President Donald Trump's administration and potential witnesses, paving the way for legal action against those who defy subpoenas in Congress' Russia probe and other investigations.
The House resolution would authorize lawsuits against Attorney General William Barr and former White House counsel Don McGahn for defying subpoenas pertaining to special counsel Robert Mueller's report . It also would empower committee chairmen to take legal action to enforce subpoenas without a vote of the full House, as long as they have approval from a bipartisan group of House leaders.
Tuesday's vote reflects an evolving strategy for Democrats, who have moved toward lawsuits and away from criminal contempt as they investigate the Trump administration . Criminal contempt would be referred to the Justice Department, where it would certainly be rejected. In the courts, meanwhile, Democrats have scored some early wins over Trump.
The vote, along with two hearings this week on the Mueller report, is partly designed to mollify anxious Democrats who have tried to pressure House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to begin impeachment proceedings immediately. Pelosi, D-Calif., prefers to continue the investigations and see where they lead.
Pelosi said at a policy conference Tuesday that Democrats' strategy is "legislating, investigating, litigating," in that order.
She also continued to brush back questions about impeaching Trump, saying "it's not even close" to having enough support among House Democrats for a vote. While several dozen Democrats have called to begin the process with an impeachment inquiry, the majority of Pelosi's caucus has stood behind her.
It's unclear how quickly Democrats will go to court once the resolution is approved. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler signaled on Monday that they will hold off on suing Barr after the panel struck a deal with the Justice Department to receive some underlying materials from Mueller's report. Nadler said the administration will provide some of Mueller's "most important files" and all members of the committee will be able to view them.
Easing tensions with Barr, at least for now, Nadler said the panel will not vote to hold the attorney general in criminal contempt. But with Tuesday's vote to authorize civil legal action, Democrats made clear that they are still willing to go to court if necessary to obtain Mueller's full report and the underlying evidence.
"If the department proceeds in good faith and we are able to obtain everything that we need, then there will be no need to take further steps," Nadler said in a statement. "If important information is held back, then we will have no choice but to enforce our subpoena in court and consider other remedies."
A court case could come more quickly for McGahn, who has defied subpoenas for documents and testimony at the behest of the White House .
New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a member of Democratic leadership and the Judiciary panel, said Tuesday that he expects they will not "race to the courthouse" if the Justice Department continues to cooperate. But he said McGahn is another matter.
McGahn is in "a particularly Fvulnerable situation" as a private person no longer employed by the government, Jeffries said. "He should begin to cooperate immediately or face the consequences."
Democrats are ramping up action related to Mueller's probe into Russia election meddling as they try to focus more public attention on the report, released in redacted form in April . Mueller wrote that there was not enough evidence to establish that there was a conspiracy between Trump's 2016 campaign and Russia, but he also said he could not exonerate Trump on obstruction of justice. The report examined several episodes in which Trump attempted to influence Mueller's probe.
On Monday, the Judiciary panel heard testimony from John Dean, a White House counsel under Richard Nixon who helped bring down his presidency. Dean testified that Mueller has provided Congress with a "road map" for investigating Trump.
He said he saw parallels between Mueller's findings regarding Trump and those of congressional investigators looking into Nixon's administration decades ago. Dean pointed to the way the presidents used their pardon power in an attempt to influence witness testimony, and their efforts to seize control of the investigation and direct the efforts of prosecutors.
Trump, apparently watching the televised hearing, tweeted, "Can't believe they are bringing in John Dean, the disgraced Nixon White House Counsel." He added his oft-repeated claim, "No Collusion - No Obstruction!"
The focus on Mueller will continue Wednesday, when the House Intelligence Committee is scheduled to review the counterintelligence implications of Russia's election interference, as detailed in Mueller's report.
Republicans have criticized the hearings as a waste of time and have called for Democrats to move on.
"The chairman wants to talk about anything that might sway opinion against the president before the 2020 election," Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the Judiciary panel, said at Monday's hearing. "That's why these proceedings are moving so slowly: Robert Mueller closed up shop a little too early in the election cycle."