The US House Judiciary Committee voted on Wednesday to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress for refusing to hand over the complete, unredacted report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election prepared by special counsel Robert Mueller.
The committee, in which Democrats have the majority, voted 24-16 in favor of holding Barr in contempt, thus sending the measure to a vote in the full House of Representatives, where the Democrats are also in the majority.
Meanwhile, the White House on Wednesday invoked the legal principle of executive privilege to block the release of the report.
The move by the White House escalated a constitutional clash between the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and Republican President Donald Trump over its powers to investigate him, his administration, his family and his business interests.
Pelosi: Trump 'becoming self-impeachable'
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress, said Trump's moves to thwart subpoenas were obstructing oversight by lawmakers and inquiries into Russian interference to boost Trump's candidacy in the 2016 US election, the subject of special counsel Robert Mueller's report.
"Every single day the president is making the case. He's becoming self-impeachable," Pelosi told The Washington Post, referring to the impeachment process in Congress to remove a president from office.
Pelosi added that Barr, the top US law enforcement official and a Trump appointee, should be held in contempt of Congress.
Executive privilege is sometimes claimed by US presidents to keep other branches of government from getting access to internal executive branch information.
Democrats have said the Trump administration waived executive privilege when it allowed some senior Trump advisers, including former White House Counsel Don McGahn, to talk to Mueller's team during the investigation.
However, the Justice Department said that allowing such cooperation did not mean the administration relinquished the right to assert executive privilege now.
House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler said the White House was misapplying executive privilege in "a clear escalation in the Trump administration's blanket defiance of Congress's constitutionally mandated duties," adding that neither Barr nor Trump should be permitted to be "above the law."
"I can only conclude that the president now seeks to take a wrecking ball to the Constitution of the United States of America," Democratic Representative Sheila Jackson Lee said.
A 1974 Supreme Court ruling made clear the contours of the doctrine of executive privilege. In the case US v. Nixon, President Richard Nixon was ordered to deliver tapes and other subpoenaed materials to a federal judge for review.
The Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that a president's right to privacy in his communications must be balanced against the power of Congress to investigate and oversee the executive branch.
White House defends privilege
The White House said Democrats forced the move. "Faced with Chairman Nadler's blatant abuse of power, and at the Attorney General's request, the president has no other option than to make a protective assertion of executive privilege," White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.
Trump is blocking numerous investigations by House Democrats, ranging from Mueller's probe to his own tax returns, past financial records and the White House's granting of high-level security clearances to members of his family. Court action is likely to follow.
js,av/sms (Reuters, AP)